The literary world has just lost one of its finest English-Arabic translators. The American University in Cairo Press is deeply saddened by the passing of Humphrey Davies (1947–2021), the Cairo-based award-winning British translator of Arabic historical and classical texts and modern fiction, who had worked for decades in the Arab world. He died in the UK on 12 November after a short battle with cancer.
“Humphrey Davies has been a towering figure in the translation of Arabic into English for many years, in both modern fiction and pre-modern literature, a prolific and consistent translator of the highest caliber,” said R. Neil Hewison, former AUC Press associate director for editorial programs, who had commissioned many of Humphrey’s Arabic to English renderings for AUC Press over the years.
Lively, witty, and highly knowledgeable, Davies brought his craft, wide scholarship, and fierce intelligence to bear on a broad range of works, from serious nonfiction to literary texts. He was the translator of some twenty works of modern Arabic literature, among them Alaa Al Aswany’s bestselling The Yacoubian Building (first published in English by AUC Press in 2005), four novels by Elias Khoury, and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg.
He was twice the winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation; first in 2006, for Elias Khoury’s grand epic novel The Gate of the Sun, and later in 2010 for Khoury’s novel Yalo. That same year Davies was also runner-up for the Banipal Prize for his translation of Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, and in 2012, he was again runner-up for his translation of the classic, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here by Mourid Barghouti.
“Winning the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize twice represents for me, primarily, recognition of the novels themselves. Both The Gate of the Sun and Yalo are works of extraordinary strength that non-Arab readers need to have available,” said Davies back in 2010.
Born in Great Britain, Davies studied Arabic at Cambridge University from 1965 to 1968, before spending two years at AUC’s Center for Arabic Studies Abroad. In the early 1970s, after his work in publishing on the Hinds-Badawi Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic, he obtained a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1981. From 1983 to 1997, he worked in Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, and Tunisia for non-governmental community development and funding organizations before turning his hand to translation work.
He translated dozens of books for AUC Press, including Thebes at War by Naguib Mahfouz (2004), Pyramid Texts, (2007) and The Mahfouz Dialogs (2008), by Gamal al-Ghitani, Tales from Dayrut: Short Stories by Mohamed Mustagab (2008), Being Abbas el Abd by Ahmed Alaidy (2009), Friendly Fire by Alaa Al Aswany (2009), I Was Born There, I Was Born Here by Mourid Barghouti (2010), Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz (new translation, 2011), The Turks in Egypt and Their Cultural Legacy by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (2012), Private Pleasures (2013) and Black Magic (2014) by Hamdy el-Gazzar, Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise: A Jihadist’s Own Story by Khaled al-Berry (2016), and most recently, The Critical Case of a Man Called K by Aziz Mohammed (2021).
Two translations by Davies forthcoming next year from AUC Press are The Men Who Swallowed the Sun by Hamdi Abu Golayyel and the much awaited The Story of the Banned Book: Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley by Mohamed Shoair.
He is also the co-author, with Lesley Lababidi, of A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo (AUC Press, 2018).
“It’s difficult for AUC Press staff, both past and present, to imagine Humphrey gone, not only on account of his immense talent and contribution but also the great energy and enthusiasm he brought to those who worked with him at the Press through the years. He will be sorely missed,” said Nadia Naqib, AUC Press senior acquisitions editor.
Davies also served as a jury member for AUC’s distinguished Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. “His passing is a great loss to the field, as well as to the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, on the judging committee of which he served multiple times with great diligence, clear insight, and fine taste,” added Hewison.
Many more in the field of translation and Arabic literature reacted to the loss. Banipal Magazine posted on their website: “We learned the shocking news that Humphrey Davies, our dear friend and one of the greatest translators of Arabic literature to English, has died.”
Photo: Humphrey Davies with late translator Denys Johnson-Davies
Marcia Lynx Qualey, ArabLit blogger, founding editor of online magazine ArabLit, literary critic, and book editor, said: “Erudite but never patronizing, [Humphrey Davies] enlarged our world. He has been not just a seminal translator of literature both classic and contemporary, but also set a standard of welcoming people into the field, making literature and the literary world an open place, a ‘house of many rooms’ as he once said.”
Qualey first met Davies in 2009, when Karam Youssef, owner of Cairo’s Kotob Khan Bookshop, introduced her to the British translator. “I was an unpublished and unconnected nobody, yet he welcomed me in and sat down for a three-hour interview that helped launch me into literary journalism and the world of Arabic literary translation,” recalls Qualey.
Years later, in one of her ArabLit blog posts, Qualey asked Davies to share his ‘Ten Rules for Translating.’ “Only translate what you like” was first on his list.
Our thoughts are with Humphrey’s family at this difficult time.
Celebrating Humphrey: 10 Translations, 11 Interviews
By Marcia Lynx Qualey, November 14, 2021, on ArabLit