The American University in Cairo Press was very saddened by the passing of the leading and award-winning Arabic–English translator Denys Johnson-Davies, one month before his ninety-fifth birthday.
Born in Canada in 1922 and raised in Cairo, Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya, Johnson-Davies returned to Cairo as a young man in the 1940s and began a literary career that spanned some seventy years and resulted in more than thirty volumes of translated Arabic novels, short stories, plays, and poetry, bringing the works of a host of writers from across the Arab world, including his friends Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq al-Hakim, and Yusuf Idris, to an ever-widening English readership. In his autobiography, Memories in Translation: A Life between the Lines of Arabic Literature (AUC Press, 2006), he told the story of a life in translation, and gave intimate glimpses of many of the Arab writers who are becoming increasingly known in the west.
In the 1960s he started an influential Arabic literary magazine, Aswat, which published the leading avant-garde writers of the time, and in 1967 he put together the first representative volume of short stories from the Arab world. Then he really put Arabic writing on the international literary map with the establishment of the Heinemann Arab Authors series, after which he continued to select and translate the best of Arabic fiction. He also translated several books of Islamic Hadith (with Ezzeddin Ibrahim) and other books of Islamic thought, and wrote a large number of children’s books of Middle Eastern history and folktales. His last book, Homecoming: Sixty Years of Egyptian Short Stories (AUC Press, 2012), was a unique selection of some fifty stories representing several generations of Egypt’s leading short story writers.
Johnson-Davies was described by the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said as “the leading Arabic–English translator of our time.” He was “a pioneer in the project of translating works of modern Arabic literature into English and in the complex process of persuading publishers of the value of publishing such works in the Anglophone market,” according to Roger Allen, translator and emeritus professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. And Paul Starkey, translator and professor of Arabic at Durham University credits him with “putting modern Arabic writing on the map.”
Naguib Mahfouz wrote in 2006 that Johnson-Davies, whom he had “known and admired since 1945, was the first person to translate my work,” and had “done more than anybody to translate modern Arabic fiction into English and promote it.”
In 2007 he received the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Personality of the Year in the Field of Culture.