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Published on February 11, 2010

First was the word

Piles of publications by the AUC Press were displayed outside the Oriental Hall on Monday 8 February, proudly bearing the name of Banipal Award winner Humphrey Davies, whose translations include Naguib Mahfouz’ Thebes at War, Alaa El-Aswani’s The Yacoubian Building, Ahmed El-Aidi’s Being Abbas El-Abd, Mohamed Mustagab’s Tales From Dayrut, Gamal Al-Ghitany’s Pyramid Texts, Khaled Al-Berry’s Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise, Ahlam Mosteghanemi’s Chaos of the Senses and Hamdy El-Gazzar’s Black Magic. AUC professor of Arabic Studies and the university’s director of the Centre for Translation Studies, Samia Mehrez inaugurated this second session in the series of lectures organized under the title “In Translation” by explaining that the center aims at reaching beyond “inter-lingual” and into “inter-semiotic” translation in order to forge the largest possible exchange between an ever-increasing community interested in cross-border culture.

The second distinguished guest at the series, Humphrey Davies was introduced not only as the prominent translator who has delivered some 15 outstanding works of Arabic literature to English speakers, but also as the “audacious” man who forsook the promising careers that his doctoral degree from the University of California and his employment at Non-Governmental Organizations operating in Egypt, Palestine, Sudan and Tunisia entitled him to. “I love words for their own sake,” commented Davies with charming self-awareness, asserting that his ultimate choice of a career in translation has, despite possible odds, allowed him to “pay the bills, put bread on the table and go on vacations. I definitely encourage a career in translation for those who have the same passion for words.”

His first published translation, in 2000, appeared in Banipal – it was Sayed Ragab’s short story Rat, in Egyptian Arabic – affording Davies the first “bread” from his burgeoning career as a translator. The hook, however, had presented itself three years prior, in the form of an extremely ambitious project that both “confront[ed] me with many tough translational issues, and [became] addictive, and encouraged me to try my hand at making a living from translation and allied skills,” he is quoted in Banipal. The work in question was 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)”. He became “manic” about words, and so “confident” in the certitude of his ardor that he did not “feel the risk” inherent in turning translation into a career, especially as the post-9/11 world and increasingly globalized international community made translations from the Arabic a commodity in much higher demand than it was 20 years ago.

Davies’ allure as a person, in fact, partly lies in his loyalty to his inner beliefs – which seem to have repaid him, in time, for his keen self-perception and devotion in the pursuit of passion. It all began with a “mid-adolescence crisis” which erupted when he realised that he “hated” both English literature and his presence among the throngs who were enrolled in its study. He needed a subject with a “more intimate atmosphere [and so] took a leap into the dark” – a student of English literature among hundreds, he became one of the four enrolled in the study of Arabic language at Cambridge. From then on, the need to engage with the Arab world became increasingly pressing – the driving force being “putting oneself in others’ shoes,” especially as further study of the language yielded an awareness of its unfathomable complexity and richness.

Although he initially envisioned the option of translation in short-term goals, stumbling upon C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s English translation of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu irreversibly internalised Davies’ notion that a translation can be a great work of literature in its own right. Although he had “never taken a creative writing course in my life [and] never written a primary work of literature in English,” Davies, consolidated in his profound mastery of both colloquial and classical Arabic, began translating the works that he personally esteemed to be of artistic value, as a reader. When asked to define what he viewed as “artistic value”, this man of “instinct”, seemingly lost for words to explain what he perceived as obvious, shrugged while attempting to clarify: “artistic value is… it’s what turns you on”. As for the reader he has in mind while translating, Davies’ answer was witty, truthful and simple: “Someone well educated, highly cultured… someone like me.” Numerous were the instances when Davies managed, effortlessly, to extract laughter from the audience – his modest, yet secure, demeanour so engaging that the evening translated into a discussion that was as fluffy on the soul as it was dense on the mind.

The role of the translator vis-à-vis both the text and the author were extensively addressed, as the translator is often commonly perceived as cloaked in invisibility, living in the shadow of the author. Although Davies took the opportunity of this question to congratulate AUC Press for their respect and appreciation of the role of the translator, evidenced in their placing the latter’s name on the cover of the book, “invisibility is a relief for me,” he asserts, clarifying that he has “a preference for what I might call ‘deep meaning’ and ‘function’ over surface and form.”

What continues to test this particular translator is the increasing tendency of modern Arabic literature for “free and direct speech, in which the text flows in and out of tense without any particularly referential context”. “Tenses are slippery in Arabic,” he says, adding “punctuation conventions in [a state of] flux, and copy editors” to the mix of challenges he struggles with the most. “When you call the author to ask him if he meant ‘put his feet on the bath’ or ‘put his feet on the path’, you really feel like an idiot,” he chuckles.

Is his relationship with the text one of submission or control? “Submission,” he replies, “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?” The historic debate on “domesticating versus foreignizing translation” is, according to Davis, one the “most fascinating, complex and important issues in translation theory… I give it no thought.” Other considerations that have no bearing on Davies are issues of gender and politics -- I’ve Had Enough by Effat Yehia being one of only two works by women translated by him. “In don’t think in these terms,” he explains, “my only consideration is finding the book artistically compelling.” Nor does he feel he should be shouldering the responsibility for canon formation; “it would be presumptuous of me to believe that I would have an impact on forming the canon. The canon will form itself.”

Every single author, ultimately, will present the translator with challenges, be they “intense lyricism, helter-skelter rushes in streams of consciousness or unfamiliar slang that may be unknown even to the readers of the original language.” Can any work of literature be untranslatable? “I philosophically don’t want to believe that. There is no such thing as a book that cannot be translated. There are only texts that haven’t found their translators yet.”

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