Humphrey Davies on Why ‘The Critical Case of K’ Isn’t ‘Your Woo-woo Cliché of Kafka’

Last month, Hoopoe Fiction published Humphrey Davies’ translation of the award-winning debut novel by Saudi author Aziz Mohammed, The Critical Case of a Man Called K:

By Tugrul Mende

The novel, originally published in 2017, was shortlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The book follows its main character, K, through a series of transformations not unlike The Metamorphosis or Kafka’s Diaries. You can read a short review at Middle East Eye; below Humphrey Davies discusses how he came to the novel, why this isn’t your woo-woo cliché of Kafka, and how coronavirus came to appear in a novel published in 2017.

When did you first hear about this novel? How would you describe K’s trajectory?

Humphrey Davies: I first read the novel when it was nominated for a prize of whose committee I was a member. I was bowled over by it. I think anything I say about the protagonist’s development over the span of the story would count as a spoiler, since that is the story. The issue of “surroundings” is interesting. This is a work with a very palpable sense of place and social environment in which the author names nothing, not the country where he lives, nor the city, nor even his family members. Everything is nameless because the view is from inside, and the viewer doesn’t needs to name things. This has the added benefit of making any stereotypes the reader may bring to the novel irrelevant. 

As is obvious from the title, Franz Kafka plays a role in the narrative. How would you describe the book’s relationship to Kafka?

HD: Kafka is perhaps the protagonist’s primary literary soul-mate, though not the only one. Having a knowledge of Kafka’s works is something that will benefit any reader, of any book, and is infinitely preferable to having a knowledge of the creepy, woo-woo cliché of Kafka that is common among those who haven’t read his works. That is not the author’s Kafka. 

How much was this translation a dialogue or a collective effort between you and the author? How much did the author get involved in the process?

HD: I worked with the author in the same way that I do with all (living) authors: as I make the first draft, I mark stuff I have a question for the author on in red (could be a possible misprint, could be that I have no idea what this means, or anything in between); as I do the second draft, I remove some of these red passages (Oh, now  I see!) and sometimes add others (come to think of it, that sounds very odd). Then I go over the entire text with the author (in this case, by Skype) and ask them about everything in red. Then I send them the text. Then I incorporate anything they may have commented on and that makes sense to me. Then it’s off to the publisher’s. “Collective effort” and “dialogue” with the implied long-into-the-night sessions of deep analysis and “Tell me, my dear friend, why did you decide to say X rather than Y?” would be overstating it. But the author has the opportunity to help and correct. Dead authors have to be handled differently, of course. 

Would you call Aziz Mohammed’s approach “experimental,” or how would you define his style? 

HD: I would not call his approach experimental: he has no need to experiment as he knows exactly what he wants to do. I might describe (rather than define) his style as being economical, highly torqued, and capable of delivering a charge high enough to light up your entire mind. 

This novel was published in 2017, but there is a scene in which the protagonist mentions a certain “coronavirus.“ How did this end up in your translation?

HD: The term “corona virus” ends up in the translation because it occurs in the original. Which was, of course, written before the appearance of Covid 19. The author, it follows, was referring to an earlier corona virus (MERS, if I remember correctly). I left it as “corona virus” because (a) I don’t like to mess with the text; (b) I may have had a mental smirk at the image of readers flinching, as at the flick of a whip, on first seeing it and thinking “That can’t be right!” before remembering that there are lots of corona viruses; and (c) because I hope this book will still be being read down the road when we’re on Covid 34 or 633. Good literature outlasts the specifities of its day. 

While translating the novel, did you come across certain terms or word choices that you particularly noted or discussed with the author?

HD: There are some usages specific to the novel’s setting (or, at least, that I have not myself seen before). These fall into the category of local terms that are not really colloquial (this book contains very little that I would call colloquial) but are not used elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world. Dictionaries tend to fail in this grey area. 

How does your translation process look like for a novel like this? How much do you read outside the novel before starting working on it, or do you start straight with the text?

HD: The only research I do is what is required by the text. Reading up generally on leukemia will not help you to better translate what the author says about it. That said, finding the right technical equivalent for a term in Arabic is important and may require “research” if that’s what they’re calling using Wikipedia these days. The problem here is that Wikipedia is so interesting and I know so little about many things, that I tend to find an hour has passed while I finally inform myself as to exactly what the Sicilian Vespers were simply because they are mentioned in an article on something else that cropped up in the text.

 What in K did you find most challenging to translate?

HD: The word al-madʿuww in the title. I found it difficult to throw off an initial presumption that I made, which was that, since Kafka wrote a novel called The Trial, there must be some trace of the legal system embedded in the term. But there isn’t. It just means “called.” I think. 

Did Hoopoe approach you to translate this book, or did you pitch it to them? In what way is translating a debut different than novels from “established” writers who you have translated in the past?

HD: I pitched it to Hoopoe. However, we should not forget the role of the author’s agent here (though, in discussions of translation it usually is overlooked, like that of the copy editor): without the agent’s agreement with the publisher, I wouldn’t have been able to translate the work. Every author who is now “established” was once not established. It’s like the exchange between Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. SF: “Why are the very rich different from us?” H: “Because they have more money.” In the end, only one thing counts: is the book in question a living thing or a dead one?

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.