Humphrey Davies and the Center for Translation Studies at AUC

A remembrance from Dr. Samia Mehrez:

In February 2009, Humphrey was among a handful of colleagues who wrote a letter to endorse the idea of establishing a center for translation studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC) before it became a reality. We had known each other for many years before the center’s existence, but it was its creation that consolidated our friendship and collegiality. Over the years, I repeatedly called on Humphrey for support for CTS and he always promptly graced the center with his support. In a letter he wrote in May 2015, Humphrey said:

“Despite the difficult circumstances in which it has had to operate since opening, the center has demonstrated its worth by maintaining a steady stream of well-attended lectures and activities.

As a translator whose works, ranging from the seventeenth century to the latest novels of young writers, which have been published widely both here in Egypt and in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, and which have won awards and recognition for their role in introducing Arabic literature to an international readership, I look forward to benefiting from and contributing to [CTS] in any way I can.”

Humphrey speaking at the 10th anniversary of the Center for Translation Studies.

And he did, in every way he could! Humphrey accompanied me every step of the way until the closure of the center in July 2021 and his own untimely passing only a few months after the center had been shut down, thereby marking the end of our adventure together; the end of an époque.

Thanks to Humphrey’s solidarity, generosity, and vision, along with several other supportive voices, the Center for Translation Studies (CTS) was launched in December 2009. Denys Johnson-Davies gave the inaugural lecture in the In Translation Lecture Series that spanned twelve years as a series and Humphrey Davies gave the second one in February 2010, almost a year to the day after he had written to endorse the creation of CTS.

Humphrey’s lecture focused on his own experiences as a leading translator and the insights he gained from his work in the field of literary translation. In particular, he addressed what drove him to begin his study of Arabic, the role of the translator as a public figure in relation to the author, how the profession of the translator of Arabic literature has changed over the years, the relationship between the translator and different kinds of translation (both literary and commercial), and his thoughts on important debates in translation studies. As an active and engaged literary translator, Humphrey shared many important lessons with the audience that was literally packed inside Oriental Hall in the Tahrir Campus. Here are some of his remarks on that occasion:

 “I think that diversity of experience is critical for translation. Translate everything—billboards, subtitles on movies, leaflets that come with pills, doctors’ prescriptions, label on cans of food, electricity bills – it can all teach you something.”

To be a native speaker of one’s own language isn’t enough; one has to be a connoisseur of one’s language.”

I can’t imagine keeping up with changes in the language, or with developments in the field of literature, from a place outside the Arab world.

Once you realize… the impossibility, indeed the meaninglessness of the idea, of ‘a literal translation,’ the door is open; all translation is interpretation. Personally, I suppose I have a preference for what I might call ‘deep meaning’ and ‘function’ over surface and form. The sort of question that goes through my head while translating is, what does the author really mean here and how would I say it if I were using English?

I learned Arabic under a system now largely pooh-poohed as old-fashioned and inadequate that to some extent mirrored the concerns and approach of classical Arab language instruction. Today students are… taught with the goal of ‘proficiency’ in mind… learning only as much as you ‘need to know’ to attain your goals… I’m often impressed when I meet the products of this system by their fluency in spoken Arabic but I doubt that it is the best approach for turning out translators. If you haven’t studied poetic meters, if you’ve never read a Qur’an commentary, if you’ve been told that iʽrab doesn’t matter, one day, sure as eggs is eggs, if you become a translator, you’ll find that you wished you knew.” 

Humphrey’s lecture was very well-received and well-covered by the press. When I sent him the press file, he wrote back on February 25, 2010 and said:

Thanks for asking me to take part. I hope the coverage was positive (I’m too much of a coward to actually read it myself).”

This was Humphrey Davies: brilliant, encyclopedic, sharp, eloquent, and inspiring but also surprisingly, timid, modest, and always understated!

Humphrey will revisit his first lecture at CTS ten years later when I invited him to be part of the center’s anthology, In the Shoes of the Other: Interdisciplinary Essays in Translation Studies from Cairo (Cairo, Al-Kotob Khan, 2019). He updated his text and expanded it to reflect ten additional years of prolific experience as translator of very diverse texts. He reviewed his own essay at least three times before publication with enormous attention to detail, style, and format and he gave it a new title: “Translation Inside Out.” And it is precisely that!

In September 2011, I invited Humphrey to take part in a panel discussion about Elias Khoury’s Bab al-Shams (Gate of the Sun) which he had translated. The panel included both Elias Khoury and Yousry Nasrallah, director of the epic filmic adaptation of the novel. The panel was entitled “Translations of Palestine: A Conversation Across Texts.” As with his first lecture at CTS, Humphrey shared his notes with me before the event because he always wanted to make sure that he was addressing the issues you expected him to raise. I had basically asked him to speak about why he chose to translate the novel. He sent me these profoundly meaningful reflections. He wrote, in part:

In the midst of a discourse around Palestine that is usually set in terms of absolute truth, this relativity, this ambiguity, this questioning and self-doubt create, paradoxically, authority. And with this authority comes the absolute need for it to be translated.”

Humphrey was not just one of the most engaging lecturers at CTS, he was also the backbone of the center’s audiences. For twelve years he attended practically all the monthly lectures of the In Translation Lecture Series despite the fact that many, if not most, were well beyond the scope of literary translation. He would write to me to commend the speakers whose lectures he particularly enjoyed. After a lecture by Khairy Douma entitled “In Search of Latifa al-Zayaat and the Translation Movement,” Humphrey wrote:

That was an excellent lecture last night, really meaty.”

Humphrey was not only graciously appreciative of other colleagues’ contributions, but he was also movingly compassionate especially towards younger scholars and translators. On February 24, 2021, we experienced a repulsive Zoom attack at CTS during Mai Serhan’s lecture on her translation of Sayyed Darwish. It was quite shocking for us all but especially daunting for her, of course. Some attendees left the session in fear that their computers would be hacked and we had to block further access to the session. Despite this very disruptive incident, Mai, who is a young scholar, currently enrolled in a graduate program in creative writing at Oxford University, valiantly continued her lecture. The next day, Humphrey wrote to ask for Mai’s email as he did not know her prior to attending the lecture on Zoom. He shared his email to her with me. This is what he wrote:

Dear Mai,
I’d like to add a word of support to the many I’m sure you’ve already had
following the revolting attack on your lecture yesterday. I tuned out early
(I had a probably paranoid fear that my own computer could be compromised)
and then of course couldn’t get back in, which is a pity as I was so much
looking forward to hearing your ideas. I certainly hope there will be
further opportunities to get to know your work.
Best wishes,
Humphrey Davies

This email marked the beginning of a flood of others in which Humphrey and Mai shared ideas and exchanged many samples of work in progress.

And Humphrey was a grand adventurer throughout his distinguished, multi-faceted career and the diversity of the texts not to mention his amazing willingness and ability to experiment with new and challenging experiences.

In January 2018, Rana Issa and I invited Humphrey to lead a literary workshop that was part of a joint initiative between AUC and AUB. We asked Humphrey to assess the workshop and his experience with the students. He sent us a long message, titled: Work-Shop: Translation in Extremis, or How to Translate “the Untranslatable.”

On December 9, 2019 Humphrey agreed to be part of a panel of speakers during the launch of the center’s anthology, In the Shoes of the Other and the celebration of its tenth anniversary. His intervention was wittily entitled “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”

On July 17, 2021, I sent a message to the CTS mailing list announcing that the AUC Administration had decided to shut down CTS. As always, the next day, Humphrey promptly sent me a short note:

Dear Samia,

I’m very sorry to hear that. You did a great job.

Best, H.

Thank you Humphrey for being there for so many years. I will miss you my friend.

Samia Mehrez

%d bloggers like this: