Lit & Found: Hadil Ghoneim Talks to Trevor LeGassick

JUNE 24, 2022 — On Tuesday, scholar and translator Trevor LeGassick died after battling cancer. He was 86.

LeGassick, one of the early translators of Arabic literature into English, was the first translator of Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley (later translated by Humphrey Davies), co-translator of Emile Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, with Salma Khadra Jayyusi, as well as works by Sahar Khalifeh, Halim Barakat, Yusuf Idris, and others.

Back in 2015, award-winning Egyptian author Hadil Ghoneim spoke with LeGassick about his translation career, how Mahfouz reminded him of Chaucer, and why Midaq Alley is Mahfouz’s best book.

He also spoke about US, UK, and European academics, saying, “I decided to translate Midaq Alley and published an appreciative article about Mahfouz and the trilogy in particular, and that came out in 1963. That kind of aroused the interest of the academic orientalist community, who weren’t aware that there were any novels in Arabic.”

He was also open about some of the mistakes he’d made in translation:

One example of a mistake I made in the first edition is when the matchmaker suggests an elderly suitor for Saniya Afifi, who was 50 herself, and in the wonderful dance between her and the matchmaker she responds with the phrase: “Aftar ala basala?” (break a fast by eating an onion?). I didn’t have an Egyptian friend to ask and had no idea how common a phrase it was, so I translated it to mean “eat very little to become fitter”. That is: I’ll take care of my health and eat only an onion for breakfast, whereas as you know, and as it was pointed out later to me with great glee, what she was obviously saying is that she wants a young virile man.

It’s likely a reader could easily understand this saying, without any additional explanation, but LeGassick discussed his domesticating philosophy that is, by and large, not currently in use:

 I wanted to diminish the distance between potential readers and the work itself by making it look as if it didn’t have those cultural issues.

Read the whole interview at Mada Masr.