On the politics of translation in the Arab world

Interview inside literature

BEIRUT: The following interview with writer and literary translator Denys Johnson-Davies is the third in a series for which The Daily Star will periodically seek out and sit down with various, established cultural figures who work behind the scenes, provide a vital link between artists and audiences and are more often than not the unsung heroes of their fields.

Described by Edward Said as "the leading Arabic-to-English translator of our time" and by Naguib Mahfouz as the man who "has done more than anybody to translate modern Arabic fiction into English and promote it," Johnson-Davies is a pioneer in a field of few contenders. Over the course of a long and illustrious career spanning five decades and counting he has translated the work of such legendary writers as Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris, Yahya Hakki, Ghassan Kanafani, Mohamed Choukri and Hanan al-Shaykh.

In 1947, he translated Mahmoud Teymour's "Tales from Egyptian Life" and published the book at his own expense in Cairo. It was the first time a volume of Arabic short stories had been made available in English. Twenty years later, he helmed the first anthology of Arabic fiction, "Modern Arabic Short Stories," published by Oxford University Press. He is responsible for giving English-language readers access to Tayeb Salih's seminal "Season of Migration to the North," the only Arabic novel included in the venerable Penguin Classics series. 

Most recently, he edited "The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction," a roundup of 79 writers from 14 counties that is sure to enter the personal libraries of students and readers all over the world with an interest in the literature and culture of the Middle East.

Born in Canada, Johnson-Davies grew up in Sudan and other countries in East Africa. He lived for a spell in the United Kingdom and now divides his time between Cairo and Marrakesh. At this point, he considers his adventures in translation largely finished, though he says he wishes he had translated a neat 30 titles instead of an ungainly 28.

These days, Johnson-Davies is focusing on his own work. His first short story collection, "The Fate of a Prisoner and Other Stories," is being reprinted by a Dubai publisher, under a new title: "Open Season in Beirut," a hint at Johnson-Davies days in the Lebanese capital in the early 1970s. He is currently at work on a second volume of short stories and in the midst of an autobiography as well.

The following interview was conducted by e-mail between Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul.

Q: What were your criteria for selecting the stories and excerpts that appear in "The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction"?

A: Primarily, readability. I had felt it was time such an anthology was produced. The English reader had now heard of Naguib Mahfouz, and had perhaps read something by him, so I thought that an anthology would provide a guide to what else was available in English.

Q: Were there any writers you wanted to include in this anthology but couldn't?

A: Yes, there were various writers I would have liked to include but at that date no translations of their work existed. One such writer was the Egyptian Mohamed Mustagab. I rang him up at the time to ask if anybody had translated any of his stories into English. "But didn't you translate one by me?" he answered. Later, when the book had gone to the printers, I found among my papers the copy of a story I had published in the weekly English-language edition of Al-Ahram. Sadly, the writer has since died, but a volume of his stories is at present being translated by Humphrey Davies.

Q: You mention Muhammad Husayn Haykal's "Zaynab" in your introduction to the anthology, but I have noticed that while it is often pegged as the birth of the Arabic novel, it is rarely - if ever - anthologized. Was there any reason why you didn't include it?

A: You are right in saying that "Zaynab" is regarded as the first Arabic novel, but while I felt that this fact might be of interest to a student of modern Arabic literature, it was not a novel which would provide a good read for the average reader, and my objective in producing the anthology was to win over potential readers.

Q: Have you ever encountered a writer whose work in Arabic is utterly untranslatable?

A: I don't think the Arabic language is one where an Arab James Joyce could suddenly produce the equivalent of "Finnegan's Wake." On the whole, writers use the classical language ... However, I think the time may well come when Arab writers are more inclined to experiment.

Q: What are the politics of translation today and how have they changed since you began your work?

A: The situation today where the translation of Arabic literature is concerned is radically changed for the better. When, in the 1940s, I translated my volume of stories by Mahmoud Teymour, I was obliged to publish it in Cairo at my own expense. Later on, with the establishment of Heinemann's "Arab Authors" series, it became possible for a translator to write in to me, as the adviser to the series, and suggest that he wished to translate a certain book. If we agreed, there was no payment to either the writer or the translator, but both were only too happy to have the book published and to be paid as and when copies of the book were sold.

The position today is even better with British and American publishers opening the door to the occasional book translated from the Arabic, while the American University in Cairo Press will give consideration to the translation of any novel and will pay the translator up-front for his work and produce the final book in a wholly acceptable form. When I first started translating, the movement of modern Arabic literature was in its infancy and I sometimes feel it is a pity that not more was published at that time. In the early days of a literature the element of luck inevitably plays a part and not everyone gets the recognition he deserves.

Q: I understand that you learned spoken Arabic as a child in Sudan and became fluent while working for the British Broadcasting Corporation's Arabic service, but I wondered if you could discuss briefly how you became proficient in Arabic to the extent that you could translate literary works? What does it take?

A: As a child in Wadi Halfa, my friends were Sudanese children and it seems that I spoke the language as well or better than English. However, just as a child learns quickly, he forgets as quickly. So, when I began to study Arabic at the age of 15, I started from scratch. Later, I was greatly helped by my Arab colleagues at the BBC and it was through my work rather than my time at university that I learnt Arabic. You ask what it takes - I think the simple answer is a lot of hard work!

Q: How do you keep tabs on young, up and coming writers in the region, vast as it is?

A: I don't. As you say, a vast amount is being published these days, especially as nowadays in Cairo there are a number of publishers who are available to publish a writer so long as he is prepared to pay. As always, I rely on my friends to tell me if something outstanding has suddenly appeared.

Q: What, in your opinion, is needed to bring Arabic literature to a wider audience at this point? Would you, for example, like to see more translations into English, or more Arabic speakers from outside the Arab world?

A: There is no doubt that another Nobel Prize going to another Arab writer would help. More than anything, though, is for the Arab world to produce writers of real talent. Yes, I think the more translations into English the better, and the latest success of Alaa al-Aswani's novel ["The Yacoubian Building"] shows that there is room for books that can give the reader something new.





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