The world of Arabic literature in English has changed a great deal in the last decade, according to award-winning translator Humphrey Davies.
Denys Johnson-Davies—the pioneering translator who brought the works of Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Saleh, and Mahmoud Darwish to English-language audiences—says he never made much money from his labors. But, says Humphrey Davies (unrelated), “The fact is that I can make my living as a full-time translator.” He notes that there has been an increased interest from the West following the events of September 2001, “and this is kind of a fecund period in Arabic literature.”
Davies recently translated Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, out from the U.K.’s Sceptre Press this fall. We spoke at his apartment in the Abdeen neighborhood of Cairo.
—M. Lynx Qualey
For more on Sunset Oasis, read M. Lynx Qualey’s review in this issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
Marcia Lynx Qualey: What do you take into consideration when deciding whether or not to take on a certain project? Does it have anything to do with how your prose fits with the author’s? What were your considerations for Sunset Oasis?
Humphrey Davies: Basically, I translate books that I like, and I don’t translate what I don’t like. It’s got nothing to do with the issue of my prose and their prose. Theoretically at least, I shouldn’t have my own prose. It should be a reflection of the writing of the person I’m translating. . . . To put it impressionistically, I try to hear the voice that’s speaking from this novel, off the page, and I try to reproduce that voice. That said, I’m British, I’m educated—I mean, Ph.D.-level educated—I’m this, I’m that, and these things must carry over, to some degree. If I like the book, I like the book. If I get excited about the book in the exact same way I get excited about any book in English, then I’m interested in translating it.
MLQ: During the translation process, do you go and ask the author for clarification on certain points?
HD: Absolutely. It’s one of the great advantages of working with modern authors is that most of them are alive. I really resent it when they die, because they’re not around to answer my questions. Because there are always questions. They range from misprints, which are not infrequent in books printed here, to a fundamental misunderstanding, or a feeling of not understanding the fundamental logic of a paragraph or an idea, and needing to get to the bottom of that. Because if you don’t understand, you can’t translate.
MLQ: And does that ever lead to a rewrite on the author’s part? Or is it usually just communication?
HD: It’s usually communication—it’s sometimes clarifying, and maybe to the point where the author says, Well, I could’ve put it that way, and maybe that would be clearer, but this is what I was getting at. Usually, to be honest, it’s my failure to grasp the text correctly. I think the notion that translators are without sin, somehow, in terms of language, is ridiculous. When you know that [C. K.] Scott Moncrieff, who translated Proust, was then re-edited and re-done and corrected in about five different editions—then it humbles one. And you feel that you’re in good company. Because that’s certainly one of the world’s classic translations.
MLQ: Certainly, when I read a book, there are parts—say a paragraph that isn’t clear, and I just move on from it.
HD: Right. This is the thing about a translator—being a translator is like being a reader squared. Nobody reads a book as closely, I swear to God, as a translator. With the exception, perhaps, of a Ph.D. student writing their dissertation on a single text. But if you’re translating, you’ve got to acknowledge and do something with every single written symbol on the page.
MLQ: So do you find yourself reading everything more closely then, or just the books you translate?
HD: Oh, yeah, the books that I translate. When I read them the first time, I read like anybody else, I think. If there’s something a little bit—oh I’m not quite sure about that, you know—my eye slides onto the next paragraph, and it’s fine. But then of course that comes back to bite you, if you’re translating it. But you can’t expect. . . . A text that was completely transparent would probably be impossible, and quite boring.
MLQ: Then specifically, about Sunset Oasis. How did you come across that?
HD: I heard about the book quite some time before it won the prize [International Prize for Arabic Fiction]. I don’t remember how I heard about it. I already was an admirer of Bahaa Taher. I’d already read a couple of things by him—this was a major new book by him. I read it and I liked it very much. I met Bahaa Taher, and I told him I was interested in translating it. And I guess then the formal invitation came from Dar el Sherouk (the Egyptian publisher).
MLQ: What were the particular challenges of translating Sunset Oasis? That’s too broad a question, isn’t it. For instance, you imply, in your afterward, that Sunset Oasis should not be read as an historical novel. Why?
HD: The issues that came up in editing were issues around how you approach the book. And this is where it comes in, whether it’s a historical novel or not. And I—and I think the author—don’t view it as an historical novel in the sense that it’s basically intended to represent an historical issue or period of history. It’s a novel about universal human issues which happens to be set in a particular period which isn’t our own. However, there was quite a lot of discussion with the editors, for example, as to the nature of the language. Because it was set in a historical period, but wasn’t a historical novel. My perspective on it was that there was no need to be particularly worried about whether a certain idiom, for example, had been used in fact in English before 1896—whereas they were actually quite worried about that. We got into a big thing about whether anyone actually wore a bra before 1896. Because at one point, in the original, he [Taher] talks about a woman wearing a bra. I think I changed this to bodice, because I mean this was just about the time of the introduction of the bra, and she would’ve been what they call technically an early adopter if she had in fact worn one in 1896 in Siwa. But who cares? To me, I mean, in fact, it’s really irrelevant. But if you stress the historical side of it, then you’re obviously going to get more worried about that. And there was a little discussion about whether a lean-to—as a shed against a building—whether lean-to was used in 1896. In fact, it was first used in 1421.
MLQ: Did rendering Alexander the Great’s narrative provide particular difficulties? It reads differently from the rest of the book; how did you decide on the tone to take with it?
HD: Bahaa Taher’s style is characterized by his lucidity. It’s economic, and it’s clear. So that is not so much an issue. Questions of differentiation of the characters—and the different voices of the characters—well, I don’t regard that as my job. My job is to try to reflect what the author, in this case, already has done. Such that Catherine comes over as quite a sort of perky, determined, 19th-century woman who’s out there to do what she thinks is important. And Mahmoud has his endless dark moments. . . . But the author’s done that work. It’s only my job to try and to get the right language to reflect what the author says. This brings us to the issue of the Alexander passage. It does stand out, obviously, but it stands out in the Arabic. It’s different because the Arabic is different. It’s more lyrical; it’s very distinctly lyrical. It’s very regal. I particularly enjoyed translating that passage. There’s something I particularly liked about that. I think it’s not just the language, but the idea of the sort of anti-Alexander the Great. Someone who’s not fulfilling all the stereotypes of a gung-ho world conqueror, but who is very introspective, self-doubting—an ultimately lost character.
MLQ: I read that a number of critics disliked the Alexander the Great chapter, and felt that it slowed the forward motion of the narrative. There’s something to be said—it does slow down the book. But it also reflects a number of things going on.
HD: It’s another human being wondering what the hell went wrong with life. How did I end up in this place that I am? After so much promise or expectations—things being very different—and then, in the end saying, coming down to it, I don’t understand. You know, don’t ask me questions.
MLQ: This is also not a “historical” chapter?
HD: The historical aspect of it is incidental. I think what is perhaps more important here is this is somebody to whom people look for answers. In a way, Catherine is looking to this guy for answers. She has a fascination with him which she doesn’t accord to anyone else. And here he’s saying, I don’t have any answers, there aren’t any answers, despite my very high historical profile. And I think that’s what’s important about him. But that the tone should be different is—I don’t know if it’s a question of historicity. . . . I think probably not. I think it’s different because the man is in a different dimension. He’s a legendary figure. So he can’t exactly chat like Mahmoud and Catherine.
MLQ: How do you conceive the book’s English-language audience? With what degree of knowledge about/openness toward Egypt? Myself, I was particularly thrown by the name “Dusky Ni’ma.” The word dusky, at first, took me out of the narrative into a host of other associations.
HD: I try not to get into second-guessing the audience too much. I mean, I have a basic assumption that the audience is pretty much like me. They’re educated . . . they’re readers. Readers are a special category in every society. I don’t get into too much, How are they going to react to this bit, how are they going to react to that bit. Even if I could, what am I supposed to do about it? In terms of the use of the word dusky, for Ni’ma—partly it’s just a question of vocabulary. How many words are there for brown? I didn’t think about it too much, really, but if it does have some kind of association with slavery, spirituals. . . . This is something probably much more alive to you as an American than me as a Brit. The word samra’, which is used in Arabic, is quite poeticized and eroticized. And Ni’ma is a slave. Looking at it historically, slavery is very different here. Most importantly, there isn’t a group of identifiable ex-slaves. And if there were, it would probably be a point of pride. I’ve heard people say, My great-grandmother was a Circassian slave and she married someone Bey. It’s a completely different thing. What can a translator do except say something in the afterword? And that would be giving it far more importance than it merits.
MLQ: You have both an endnote and a glossary.
HD: My purpose in the afterword was simply to give people orientation to the Urabi revolt, which he [Taher] assumes that people have some knowledge of. I simply wanted to make sure that they—if they were interested—they could have what was already in the Egyptian reader’s mind by way of historical information. There is a sort of big debate, a three-pronged debate between authors, translators, and publishers. Publishers by and large hate footnoting novels. Publishers, that is to say, of English-language novels. Publications of Dostoevsky into Arabic, for example, are footnoted to the hilt. So Arabic authors tend to be more favorable to footnoting. That’s always an argument. I think that glossaries are really only essential for things like historical figures and events, things you cannot necessarily deduce that from the context. A specific historical person is worth devoting a sentence to in a glossary.
MLQ: You find yourself not in favor of footnotes?
HD: I take a middle position. I think not footnotes, for the same reason that most glossaries are not important. They are an interruption to the reader’s concentration without sufficient reward. Usually. Occasionally, translators can do little things to explain something. But then sometimes you can feel the translator here adding a little word or two. You can feel the translator in the text. But the translator has to have a range of different strategies and tactics. For example, a book I’ve just translated talks about a guy smoking hashish in a goza. I suppose I could’ve put goza. There’s no special significance to goza, except something that would take a chapter to explain: a sheesha is more for the upper-class and a goza is not. I ended up translating it as handheld water pipe. I suppose I could’ve just used pipe? But I didn’t want them to think of someone in a French detective novel, with a pipe.
MLQ: There must be a saturation point of foreign words?
HD: There must be a saturation level, but it’s probably generally much higher than we think.
MLQ: What do you say to the idea that there’s not much Arabic literature in translation, in general?
HD: This is his [Taher's] fourth book that’s been translated. I wish somebody would make a list of everything that’s been translated. I suspect much more has been translated than people are aware of. The English-language publishing world is often attacked for not being interested in Arabic literature, or for being interested in the wrong Arabic literature. There have been some outstanding pioneers, like Denys Johnson-Davies. And at the moment, there is a nice little group of highly competent translators. I think the interest is growing. There’s an increased number of people studying Arabic, yielding a large number of people interested in translating. Some of them are going to be very good translators. There is much greater interest among publishers now. There’s a real momentum.
MLQ: And this is starting since . . . 2001?
HD: That probably is the biggest thing. It has had an effect. The Middle East is always in our screens, if not in our faces. People do want to understand more, how does that part of the world tick? One would like, as any intelligent person, to know what people are thinking. When you learn it through literature, you sometimes get a much more intimate, a way more real sense of what the person’s world is like. There probably was a little time lag—telephones weren’t ringing on the 12th of September. The people with the money have discovered another use of power is to support culture. Most authors in this country still pay to have their books published. But now, prizes have been established. And there are truly professional publishers, like Dar El Sherouk. It’s got to do with the Gulf, and money, and the Gulf finding a leading role for itself in the Arabic world.
MLQ: I’ve translated a few things, Russian to English, and found it extremely hard-going, like I was crawling to the finish. What is it that you particularly enjoy about translating?
HD: The first draft of a book is very heavy lifting. It hurts my eyes in particular; it’s a real strain on my eyes. At the end of the day, I’m pretty gobsmacked. The most pleasurable part is when the first draft comes back from the editor with questions, and then you can see the shape of it. You can start fine tuning and tweaking and coming up with nice little things.
M. Lynx Qualey lives and breathes in Cairo, Egypt. You can read her blog, on Arabic literature in English, here.
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