By M Lynx Qualey
On Friday, after a short struggle with cancer, Humphrey Davies died at a hospital in the UK. He was seventy-four.
He came to literary translation after a stint in publishing and a two-decade career working for NGOs in Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia. Davies studied Arabic at Cambridge, graduating in 1968, and at Egypt’s CASA program (1968-69). He didn’t come to translation until he was nearly 50, and then it was thanks to the seventeenth-century literary troublemaker Yusuf al-Shirbini.
Davies was inside and outside of academia, rooted in Egypt but not Egyptian, a playful and experimental translator but strictly faithful to the text. He translated both popular and serious literature, medieval and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction. He was both the translator of Alaa Al-Aswany and of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. He welcomed new people into the field from many different paths, official and unofficial, and offered advice and solidarity to fellow independent writers, scholars, and translators.
In a 2010 interview with Banipal, Davies explained that his “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).”
After that came many more requests, and yet he never followed the easy path, but rather took on projects like Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s wild and masterful Leg over Leg (1855), al-Jawbari’s Book of Charlatans (thirteenth century), and a collection of Mohamed Mustagab’s short stories. He also took the time to translate the work of friends and young writers he admired. He valued his relationships with his writers and his books.
Egyptian writer Khaled al-Berry said over email that, “When I introduced Humphrey Davies in his presence, I used to mention the great works he translated. I would shy from mentioning my book among his works. And he would insist on reminding me with his clear warm voice. That is to say that it has been an honor and a dream for me to have a book of mine translated by him. For my generation, Humphrey was The Translator. A stand alone cultural machine who loved what he did.”
As they worked together on translating al-Berry’s Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise, published in 2009, al-Berry said they were “A veteran translator whose command of English was outstanding, and an unknown writer who hardly spoke the language, yet he took every single comment by me seriously, sometimes having to explain to me a simple English piece of grammar and showing me his ability to taste words.”
It was 2009 when I met Humphrey, in the Kotob Khan bookshop in Maadi, when he insisted that I read Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise. Unswayed by what others thought, Davies was passionate about the books he loved. Yet he certainly didn’t love all books, and he was particularly critical of sentimentality. After more than 40 years in Cairo, he fostered a deep love of the city and its streets. In the 2010 Banipal interview with Banipal, he said that regular contact with authors, and “immersion in their environment” was critical to his practice. In recent years, he also co-wrote, with Lesley Labibidi, A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo, a look at the changing names of Cairo’s streets.
Davies became known to the wider literary-translation community in 2013, through his delightful translations of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, bringing the nineteenth-century peripatetic narrativist to an appreciative global-English audience through a variety of approaches, including Urban Dictionary and using Google translate into Latin. As Davies said in a 2015 workshop, “Even if the English language has 248 words for pudendum, you can be pretty much certain that those 248 words will not map accurately onto the words you found in Shidyaq.”
Yet, throughout all his experiments, he was a faithful translator. This did not mean each word was dictionary-translated onto the page, but rather that he neither embellished nor edited: “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.'”
I asked him, in what was to be our last interview, whether there wasn’t something — some strong authorly voice — that held together all his translation choices.
“I hope what you say about individual authors’ voices coming over distinctly is true but I find it hard to analyze my own work (beyond exclaiming “OMG, how could I have written that!” every time I see it for the first time in print). I do know what kind of writer I like – the marginal and contrarian, and those who deal with real life.”
In tributes that have begun to appear from grieving friends and colleagues online, there are some who mention his important role in experimental translation, in bringing fun and excitement to Arabic literature — whether classical or contemporary — but also many who remember he was a warm person, a loving friend, companionable, unassuming, welcoming, kind.
In the coming week, ArabLit will open up a memorial space for everyone who wants to come by, listen, and share thoughts about Humphrey Davies.