What Distinguished Humphrey Davies: Irreverent and Faithful Acts of Transcreation

With this reminiscence from scholar, author, and translator Rana Issa, we open our digital memorial for Humphrey Davies (1947-2021), which you can find at arablit.org/humphrey/:

The morning after

my death

we will sit in cafes

but I will not

be there

I will not be

—Etel Adnan

from The Spring Flowers Own

“The Morning after/my death”

“Vagina bizarrely spelled.” (1:45)  That’s how Humphrey Davies translates one of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s 99+ attributes of vagina, in Leg over Leg. I often start my translation courses with this example, to try and challenge the students to think like Humphrey. I ask them to attend to how Humphrey’s understanding of the semantic components of a word is so rigorously material, fleshed out across four layers at least: the orthographic, the lexical, the metaphorical, and the idiosyncratically authorial. With Humphrey, we learn that meaning in a word cannot be treated essentially, as a sign that can be split into a signifier and signified. There is nothing arbitrary in words that make up a text.  A translator is governed by the assumption that in a text worth the effort a writer deliberately chose the words, arranged them alongside other words and made a book that exists in adjacency to other books. This book shall now be translated for readers that belong to a different language, culture and temporal world than the one the author wrote for.  Humphrey preferred to use transcreate to describe this rigorous approach to translational practice. Transcreation was not backed by some grand theory of translation. For him it meant a simple thing: to be faithful to an author by daring to match his creativity, word for word, masterpiece for masterpiece. The translated book had to be masterful in English as it is in Arabic. The translator’s task was the transfer of this originality. That’s what distinguished his work from the bulk of translation activity that churns around Arabic. He was the greatest of our translators, and he is no more. What a profound loss for Arabic and English and the cultural bridging that Humphrey’s legacy embodied. 

Unlike many other translators of his generation, Humphrey’s work was relevant beyond the Anglophone readers who had no access to the original Arabic. When he chose what to translate, and how to translate it, Humphrey thought of us, the native Arabic speakers. He judged his work by wondering what we would think of his textual curation as well as his translational decisions. He retrieved from the expansive canon of Arabic letters books that were obstinate and subversive, thrown into oblivion by a conservative literary establishment. Growing up with Arabic, the language was generally presented to us, its young disciples with an austere face, classical, and prudish, patriarchal in tenor and values. As students, we were punished when we did not show an acceptable measure of reverence and we were reprimanded when we failed to master its intricate grammatical conventions. Even at the university level, this pedagogical austerity was the main feature of our interface with the language and its canonical texts.

Humphrey represented a different approach, one that I hold dear to my heart.  In the books that he selected from tradition, and those that he liked to reference, Humphrey presented another Arabic that was whimsical and witty, modest and inviting, and altogether unlike what we were taught to respect. He was drawn to irreverent works and welcomed the colloquial register as a legitimate writing style (see for example his great book on Egyptian dialects with the late Madiha Doss), texts that had something of the carnivalesque in the subversive intelligence they presented. His translations of al-Shidyaq, Yusuf al-Shirbini and Jamal el-Dine al-Jawbari have in common such irreverence and quirky rejection of austere styles and conventions. For us readers of Arabic that are thirsty for a more inclusive canon that has room for queers, peers, poors, boors, mamas and other sisters, Humphrey’s translations have been central in planting the idea that such a canon does exist and that our search will yield some exciting results, as his search so far has done.

When I first began working on al-Shidyaq in 2010, I was well aware that Humphrey was hard at work translating his magnum opus. I prodded on, eager to finish reading and annotating the book before him. I wanted to test my ability to handle such an obstinate text and felt great pride when I published my first article on the book before Humphrey’s translation was published. When Leg over Leg finally came out in print, I read the translation eagerly and with amazement, for I have finally met al-Shidyaq’s match in locutionary agility, albeit in English. I was profoundly grateful as well, for Humphrey facilitated a text that I only half understood during my feverish reading that took an entire year. We became friends because of al-Shidyaq. I am still incredulous that he finished the first draft in two years. How perseverant, how precise, how mischievous!

Our passion for al-Shidyaq was the wine to our friendship. He read all my articles and provided me with valuable feedback and corrected my errors. He always read within a few days and his emails tended to be on the long and perfectionist side. He read for others with as much care as he applied to his own work. I invited him to wash al-Shidyaq’s grave with me during his visit to Beirut in 2018 to participate in a conference organized by Zeina Halabi on the legacy of Elias Khoury. We took with us Elias and Suneela Mubayi, my partner in the ongoing translation of al-Shidyaq’s travelogues. We hopped over the fence that separated the burial ground from the encroaching diet center. The cemetery that hosted his mausoleum was reserved for the Christian servants of the Ottoman Empire. Elias recognized the name on one of the graves, Wasa Pasha, and recited a verse of poetry in colloquial Lebanese that commemorates his legacy. I called him to offer my condolences on the loss of our common friend, and to ask him what the verse was again, he wrote back:

رنوا الفلوس على بلاط ضريحه/وأنا الكفيل لكم برد حياته

 The money clanged on his tombstone/ and I vouch to bring him back to life 

And like in the verse for Wasa, Humphrey acted. He brought al-Shidyaq back to life, flesh drawn together around the man’s lexical obsession and his hilariously neurotic and caustic humor. We worked for four hours, mucking around the site, cleaning debris from around the mausoleum. When we were done, Humphrey read from his translation. The passage he chose is a favorite of mine, in both the Arabic and the English. I used to read the Arabic to non-Arabic speakers to make a point about its intuitive beauty. In it, al-Shidyaq is describing in onomatopoeic finesse the difference between a tambour and an organ. Humphrey read his masterful English rendition (1: 89 see the paragraph “the tambour is to the organ… plikety-plink”). In that room, I realized what I was witnessing, Humphrey was the yin to al-Shidyaq’s yang and onomatopoeic acrobatics.

Photo: Suneela Mubayi

That day, we saw al-Shidyaq beaming in admiration as he listened to his English friend rewriting his words like this.  He finally met the virtuoso translator to his maverick writing.

We went after that to my mother’s house to cool off and clean up, to drink lemonade and to be grateful for this author that brought the four of us together. I told Humphrey that we were planning to undertake work on al-Shidyaq’s travelogues. He was happy for us and encouraged us along. From the moment we began working on al-Shidyaq, Humphrey has been a daily presence. His kind gaze inhabits me. My mind’s eye imagines him as my primary reader, the one whose judgement is the measure of the value of our work. I translate for him and had planned to present him with the rough draft before I showed it to anyone else. He was such a stickler for precision. If only the world hadn’t fallen apart as we worked on this translation. Our plans for him to lead a translation residency program with Rusted Radishes in the Beqaa valley were cancelled following a revolution, an economic collapse and a covid pandemic. Plans to finish the translation of the travelogue by 2020 also faltered as I relocated to Oslo and continue to struggle to put pieces of my life back together after the shattering that is Beirut. He read the very first translated selections we published. He was gracious and like always his feedback was thorough. He was encouraging and cheerful and was quite curious how we are to solve some of the dicey sections in the book.

‘What would Humphrey do,’ is a question I ask myself frequently as I confront the untranslatabilities so prominently present in the travelogue. For me and Suneela, Humphrey’s sudden passing away is a profound personal loss, a loss that I dread to have to bear news of to al-Shidyaq, next time I visit him in Beirut to inform him that he is now stuck with us alone without the guiding eye of the kindest teacher. We will try as best we can to adhere to some principles we learned from Humphrey. We know that we cannot skip the parts in the Malta travelogue that are maddeningly difficult to render, because Humphrey won’t like that at all. He said so himself. We also know that we must engage in thorough philological research for words and phrases that al-Shidyaq includes to translate things he sees in Europe. Today, I commenced my day looking at 19th century French ads on the BNF website looking for a precise translation of حافلة المجد, because I know that Humphrey would have spent the time it takes to divine the original phrase that al-Shidyaq was working from. Such daunting labor Humphrey would expend because he only worked on texts he loved.

This love was the source of his disconcerting loyalty to his texts, and the source of his unbridled creativity in his teasing and courting and his mirthful playing around called his job. Nothing in translation theory so far is capable of describing this relation of mutual admiration that Humphrey inculcated with his authors. None of his authors could have towered over him or rendered his labor invisible; he knew how to love and be loved with respect and in equal partnership, whether he was translating an unknown young author, a contemporary giant, or a classical writer from an ancient time.

Those who worked with him for paid small jobs were always amazed that one could contract the great Mr. Davies for the rate of any run of the mill translator. Not a penny above the rate set by the British National Union for Professional Interpreters and Translators, is what friends have told me he used to charge for translation work. He was a union man whose sense of solidarity and singular modesty reveal how deep his love for his vocation ran. His professional demeanor was tempered enough to not let his achievements define his sense of worth. What an example Humphrey sets and how big the shoes he leaves behind for the filling.

Humphrey loved his vocation and reveled in the space made possible by its limits. He was very satisfied knowing that unlike an author’s labor, the work of the translator generally expires, many times replaced by younger translators. He was content with the fate of translations, and the oblivion that bars them from the transhistorical longevity that a local genius receives for her work in her local language.

It suited his appreciation of the quotidian to be a translator and not a grand immortal author. And he was attracted to authors whose sense of the quotidian was prominent. No wonder his first major translation work was al-Shirbini’s Hazz al-Quhuf. This delightful 17th century book, written mostly in Egyptian Arabic celebrates the quotidian temporalities of ordinary people and is startingly similar to Pieter Bruegel’s jovially ironic treatment of the ordinary people of Holland and Belgium. Full of laughter and lighthearted eroticism in flamboyantly candid language, Humphrey’s translation captures the colloquialism that makes this book a unique text in Arabic literature. His interest in contemporary authors mirrored his selective appetite for his classical texts. Whether he was working on Naguib Mahfouz to Alaa al-Aswany, Ahmad al-Shafey, or Elias Khoury and many others, Humphrey was attracted to texts that celebrate the quotidian and dare to experiment in style and content. His approach is emancipatory in its politics commitments. But to focus on politics would be to lose the forest for the trees. Humphrey was above all a literary man, devoted to literature and a disciple of its idiosyncratic drives. The freedom he sought was between its pages, and it was a freedom he practiced by succumbing to its whimsy. Like one of his alter egos, al-Shidyaq, Humphrey transcreated texts that lift the world from its familiarity for the “very familiarity leaves us no room for wonder.” (Leg, 2:11) Seeking wonder Humphrey’s literary choices make us marvel at the reading matter he makes available to us, that makes us identify with a thirteenth century story from the Sudan or a contemporary man from Cairo or Beirut by learning to appreciate, through his renditions, the radical otherness of their originality. He tasted the meat of language, fleshed out in canon and lexicon, proliferate on the internet and in the registers of common folk; he feasted, and taught us to savor delightful texts, as sumptuous as they were salubrious for minds and hearts seeking a more permissive aliveness in both tradition and modernity.

On the night you died, the moon hid half its face, and wept for a world that has just become a this much impoverished. Next morning, “the moon darkened at dawn/the mountain quivered,” as Etel your fellow in whimsy and in death, wrote. We may not meet again dear friend and mentor, but your spirit lives on in the many people who love you, and your example I carry in me as my precious compass.

Condolences to the family and beloveds,

Rana Issa


  1. Love the tribute to Davies!

    There may be a misprint though inthe translation of the line
    The money clanged on his tombstone/ and I vouch to bring him back to life

    is not synced with the original.

    رنوا الفلوس على بلاط ضريحه/وأنا الكفيل لكم برد حياته

    The point of the line is to say that Wasa Pasha loved money…

  2. What a great tribute to Humphrey Davies! May he rest in peace. I also agree with May’s above comment regarding the translation of the Arabic line of verse. I think it is better to translate the first hemistich as follows, “Let coins ring out on the slabs of his tomb.”

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