Celebrating Humphrey: 10 Translations, 11 Interviews

Humphrey Davies produced many translations of a wide range of work, medieval and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, in his 24 years as a literary translator. These are ten favorites from his wide-ranging career:


  1. “Shooq,” Sayed Ragab, one of Humphrey’s first literary translations

2. Pyramid Texts, Gamal al-Ghitani (excerpt on Words Without Borders)

3. Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury (excerpt on Words Without Borders)

4. As Though She Were Sleeping, Elias Khoury (the opening of Humphrey’s translation, compared to Marilyn Booth’s)

5. Leg Over Leg, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (excerpt in The White Review)

6. Midaq Alley, Naguib Mahfouz (an exploration of the descriptions in two translations, Davies’ and Le Gassick’s)

7. Tales from Dayrut: Short Stories, Mohamed Mustagab (a video of Davies reading from the book)

8. The Book of Charlatans, al-Jawbari (a “crime dictionary” based on this book appeared in our Summer 2020 issue)

9. The Critical Case of a Man Called K, Aziz Mohammed (read an excerpt on the Hoopoe Fiction website)

10. The Story of the Banned Book: Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley, by Mohamed Shoair, forthcoming 2022 (read an excerpt on the AUC Press website)


11 Interviews and Talks

Humphrey also gave a wide range of interviews and talks about his translational practice, and was usually delightfully direct.

  1. On Beginnings: Humphrey Davies, on the occasion of winning the 2010 Banipal Prize, 2010

“In 1997, I started translating as part of a larger project of mine—the preparation of a critical edition, translation and lexicon of an Egyptian work of the Ottoman period, Yusuf al-Shirbini’s Hazz al-Quhuf bi-Sharh Qasid Abi Shaduf (Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded). This undertaking proved both ambitious, confronting me with many tough translational issues, and addictive, and encouraged me to try my hand at making a living from translation and allied skills.

“My first translation of modern literature grew out of my interest in the work of a friend, Sayed Ragab, who writes in Egyptian Arabic. His short story Rat was published in Banipal (2000, thus my first published translation), while his Shooq appeared in Words Without Borders (2005). During this period, I was approached by the American University in Cairo Press and asked to translate an early Naguib Mahfouz novel (Thebes at War, 2003).”

Humphrey Davies at the launch of A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo, co-written with Lesley Lababidi. Photo: AUC Press.

2. The Rules: Humphrey Davies’ 10 Rules for Translating, 2011

(1) Only translate what you like.

(2) Consult the author about everything you don’t understand, and if s/he’s not alive, consult another native speaker who reads widely and intelligently.

(3) Don’t consult native speakers who don’t read widely and intelligently.

(4) Make three drafts, wait a month, and make a fourth.

(5) Don’t hesitate to make changes at any later stage whatever snide comments you may get from editors.

(6-10) Translate nothing till you have a contract for it.

3. On Elias Khoury: Humphrey Davies In Conversation With André Naffis-Sahely, 2011

4. On the Al-Shidyaq Translation: Humphrey Davies on Climbing Translation’s Mt. Everest, 2013

Being a lazy person, I would have loved not to have to produce thousands of lines of rhymed prose but there was no avoiding it: how otherwise would one have dealt with the passages in which he discusses it, and how to square one’s conscience with the suppression of such a prominent feature of his style?

5. Also on the Al-Shidyaq Translation: An “absquiliferous” interview with Humphrey Davies, 2013

 In the end though, the similarities between older and modern writing are deeper than the differences: while the image of older Arabic literature in people’s minds may be that of something stiff and restricted in its concerns to areas that have little present-day relevance, in the end it is the product of minds that are as individual and voices that are as distinctive as those of the moderns.

6. Questionnaire: Translation Questionnaire: Humphrey Davies, 2014

If a translator doesn’t aim to be faithful, I guess he should declare himself an author and not a translator. To me being faithful means translating in such a way that another person with knowledge of both languages can understand why the translator used those words, even if “black” is represented as “white.”

7. On ‘Brains Confounded’ and ‘Risible Rhymes’: Catching the Joke on its Wing, 2016

With each reading since the first (around 1973, I think) I’ve only come to further appreciate his originality in inverting and subverting the literary practices of the time. For example, his parody of grammatical exegesis is not without precursors, but al-Shirbīnī’s version is so much more sustained and intense that it takes the joke to another, quite surrealistic, level (as when he argues that body lice cannot jump as high as fleas because the word for the former is grammatically feminine while that for the latter is masculine, and, of course, “the female is weaker than the male.”) This is life imitating grammar, and comes close to undermining the seriousness of the whole text-and-commentary genre. 

8. On ‘In Darfur’: Crossing Cultures: A 19th Century Egyptian Story of Darfur, 2018

My desire to translate In Darfur was probably triggered by the diversity signaled in the book’s subtitle, In the Land of the Arabs and the Blacks. Today, when many parts of the world, including the Arab countries, are undergoing a return to nativism and rejection of the other, how interesting to read of a state that was extraordinarily multicultural and that survived for 300 hundred years before falling to colonial conquest, not internal contradiction. The sultans of Darfur were Fur and Muslim, their subjects a medley of different groups with a variety of languages, religions, and self-identifications (the Fullani or Peul, for example, who don’t speak Arabic, regarded themselves as Arabs and traced their origin to an Omayyad general); the sultan held court with seven interpreters between him and the people (a bare minimum, as even today more than a hundred languages are said to be spoken in Darfur). 

9. On Translating Elias Khoury, with Rana Issa, 2018

10. On al-Jawbari: Humphrey Davies and the ‘Tabloid Touch’ Demanded by Translating a 13th-century Charlatan, 2021

No trickery: a translator must be like a valet to his authors, always supportive but never taking the liberty of aping them. I read about the book somewhere, a long time ago, and knew it was for me. Note that I didn’t actually read a word of it until I came to make the proposal. These things are in the cosmos.

Humphrey Davies at the launch of A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo, co-written with Lesley Lababidi. Photo: AUC Press.

11. On the Critical Case of K: Humphrey Davies on Why ‘The Critical Case of K’ Isn’t ‘Your Woo-woo Cliché of Kafka’, 2021

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.