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Memories in Translation

Memories in Translation: A Life between the Lines of Arabic Literature

Denys Johnson-Davies
With a foreword by Naguib Mahfouz
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 148
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  • Book Info
    Memories in Translation
    Book Description:

    Nobody has done more for modern Arabic literature in translation than Denys Johnson-Davies, described by the late Edward Said as “the leading Arabic–English translator of our time." With more than twenty-five volumes of translated Arabic novels, short stories, plays, and poetry to his name, and a career spanning some sixty years, he has brought the works of a host of writers from across the Arab world to an ever-widening English readership. Here he tells the story of a life in translation, and gives intimate glimpses of many of the Arab writers who are becoming increasingly known in the west. In the 1940s, while teaching at Cairo University, he came to know such iconic figures as Yahya Hakki, Tewfik al-Hakim, Yusuf Idris, and of course Naguib Mahfouz. Later when he lived in Beirut, that other great literary center of the Arab world, he spent time with such poets as Tawfic Sayigh, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, and Boland al-Haydari. He was already a close friend of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra from his college days at Cambridge, and later of another well-known Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani. 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. Since then he has continued to select and translate the best of Arabic fiction, most recently the classic novella by Yahya Hakki, The Lamp of Umm Hashim (AUC Press 2004). He has also translated three books of Islamic Hadith (with Ezzeddin Ibrahim) and other books of Islamic thought, and has written a large number of children’s books of Middle Eastern history and folktales.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-243-0
    Subjects: History, Middle East Studies, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Naguib Mahfouz

    It is really good to be translated and to be read both nationally and internationally . . . something great! Denys Johnson-Davies, whom I have known and admired since 1945, was the first person to translate my work—a short story—and he has since translated several books of mine, so I owe him a special debt of gratitude. In fact, he has done more than anybody to translate modern Arabic fiction into English and promote it. He has always sought out interesting new writers and worked hard not only to translate their novels, plays, short stories, and poetry but...

  4. Chapter 1
    (pp. 1-12)

    An unlikely set of circumstances set me on the path to studying Arabic. Having spent a childhood firstly in Cairo, then in Wadi Haifa in Sudan, and finally in Uganda and Kenya, I went back to England on doctor’s orders alone at the age of twelve, following a bout of amebic dysentery. Several months later my parents joined me, and after passing an entrance exam I soon experienced the unpleasant taste of boarding at a minor public school. It had been decided that I should study classics, and I was quickly twenty-third in a class of twenty-five. I had found...

  5. Chapter 2
    (pp. 13-22)

    In the event, I was saved from making a decision by a call from the BBC, asking me to go for an interview with the Arabic section. Arabic had been the first foreign language in which the corporation, as from 1938, had started to broadcast. I turned up at Broadcasting House, where I was interviewed by various people and was then taken to a studio to hear a news bulletin. Nobody questioned me about what I had made of the bulletin of which I had scarcely understood a word. I was surprised to be told that I would be taken...

  6. Chapter 3
    (pp. 23-28)

    With the end of the war with Germany I was at last free to make a move from the BBC. I heard that there was a job with the British Council in Cairo to teach Arabic translation at the British Institute. I applied for it and was taken on. I was overjoyed both to leave the BBC and to escape the rigors of living in wartime England. On resigning I was told by my boss that I had made a big mistake and that a great future awaited me in the Arabic Section. I answered, in somewhat typical fashion, that...

  7. Chapter 4
    (pp. 29-34)

    One of the leaders of the literary renaissance in Egypt was of course the playwright Tewfik al-Hakim. He had an office at al-Ahram newspaper, but I would sometimes sit with him of a morning at his favorite haunt on the street outside the Café Ritz at the bottom of Qasr al-Nil Street opposite the National Bank building. I had already read hisYawmiyat nai’b fi-l-aryaf(‘Diary of a Country Prosecutor’) and felt that it would be an amusing book to translate, and one that would test my translating abilities, especially as much of the dialog was in the colloquial language....

  8. Chapter 5
    (pp. 35-38)

    Naguib Mahfouz I got to know during the time I spent in Cairo between 1945 and 1949. We would meet at one of the cafes he frequented, and early on I translated a story from his very first volume,Hams al-junun, to be broadcast on the English program of Cairo radio.

    In about 1947 I read his novelZuqaq al-Midaqq, and felt immediately that nothing like it had ever been written in Arabic. I remember going to one of Taha Hussein’s weekly soirees with Louis Awad, and mentioning the book, to find that no one there had heard of Mahfouz...

  9. Chapter 6
    (pp. 39-42)

    While I was still with the BBC’S Arabic Service I had read some of Yahya Hakki’s writing, so once I was in Cairo he was one of the writers I made contact with. I must confess that at that time I found Yahya Hakki a difficult writer, one much preoccupied with the finer points of language. Soon after arriving in Cairo I translated and published locally a short story of his entitled “Story in the Form of a Petition.” I then translated the story “Mother of the Destitute,” the original of which, as far as I remember, was first published...

  10. Chapter 7
    (pp. 43-48)

    Louis Awad was one of the most versatile intellectuals of his time. Though several years my senior, we had overlapped at Cambridge. Coming from a very modest background—am I right in saying that his father was a station master in some remote part of the country?—Louis, living at a time when talented students were sent on scholarships to Europe, took a doctorate in English literature at Cambridge. So when I turned up in Cairo in 1945 as a teacher of Arabic translation at the British Institute, I immediately made contact with him. I enjoyed his company, and we...

  11. Chapter 8
    (pp. 49-54)

    A major writer who has long been a friend is Edwar al-Kharrat. One of his stories was included in the Oxford University Press book ofModern Arabic Short Stories, It was from his first volume,High Walls. Since then he has produced a further five collections of stories and no less than fourteen novels. My last volume of Arabic short stories, published in 2000 by the American University in Cairo Press, also contained a story by him, though I was hard put to it to find one that did not present insuperable difficulties both for myself as translator and for...

  12. Chapter 9
    (pp. 55-58)

    When Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1988, I suggested to the American University in Cairo Press that they should set up an annual prize under his name for the best novel in Arabic. For some years nothing was done about this until Mark Linz, who had been the director of the Press for three years in the mid-1980s, returned to Cairo in 1995 to take up the same post. I put the idea to him and he was enthusiastic about it. He decided that the prize, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, would consist of...

  13. Chapter 10
    (pp. 59-78)

    To continue as a lecturer at Cairo University seemed to me to be an ideal way of life—while one was not overpaid, one was also not overworked. But my father had been ill and I had not visited England since leaving in 1945, so I decided to go back to London in the summer of 1949. I certainly had no intention of seeking another job, but it happened that I met someone in London who offered me a position as Middle East representative of a company that printed banknotes. After a year spent in Iran on their behalf I...

  14. Chapter 11
    (pp. 79-84)

    Whenever I needed to find another job I would return to London before going out again to the Middle East. But the time came when the American oil company for whom I worked as their local representative in Qatar decided to pull out, and I was once more looking for employment, but this time my knowledge of Arabic failed to find me work. In great part I had only myself to blame, as I stubbornly refused to commit myself to anything that looked like giving me a career. I had already refused an offer in Qatar to join Shell and...

  15. Chapter 12
    (pp. 85-90)

    While living in London between 1954 and 1969 I got to know Tayeb Salih. Though we had both worked in the Arabic section of the BBC, we had never overlapped. I think that the first piece of his writing that I read was the short story “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid.” He submitted it to Aswat and I was immediately struck by the easy style and its underlying sense of humor. It was, to my mind, an excellent piece of writing. I immediately asked my friend and former colleague at the BBC, the Egyptian artist Abdel Salam Ali Nur,...

  16. Chapter 13
    (pp. 91-96)

    Yusuf Idris was a charismatic character and a writer of great talent. In the Oxford University Press volume ofModern Arabic Short Stories. I had chosen a story that he later turned into a play but that, in retrospect, did not reveal his real genius as Egypt’s master of the short story. Perhaps it was that he had as yet not written his best work, Yusuf, for all his charm, had, at times, an embarrassingly exaggerated view of his position as a writer. He once told me, in all seriousness, that I had made a big mistake in not dedicating...

  17. Chapter 14
    (pp. 97-102)

    Toward the end of my time in London, the Central Office of Information decided to start a weekly quarter-hour television magazine program to be sent out to the various television stations in the Arab world, and I was asked to be in charge of it. I called itAdwa’ wa aswat(‘Lights and Voices’). The weekly program consisted of four or five short items that might be of interest to the Arab viewer. Interesting visitors to London sometimes featured in the program; thus a whole edition was devoted to Omar Sharif, and another to the singer Abd al-Halim Hafez. I...

  18. Chapter 15
    (pp. 103-110)

    In 1974 I left Beirut to return to Cairo. Lebanon was just getting itself into a civil war, and I had already had some experience of how difficult life would become there. I bought a flat in Dokki, a fairly central district, under a system whereby, for a small lump sum, you got basic furniture and the freehold for yourself and direct family, but continued to pay a nominal rent.

    It was about this time that I made the acquaintance of Yahya Taher Abdullah, one of the literary world’s stranger characters. He had come up from his native town of...

  19. Chapter 16
    (pp. 111-116)

    Some of my life has been spent in the Gulf, and more particularly in what are now the United Arab Emirates, and I have long wanted to produce a volume of short stories from the area. I have read many of the stories of the Dubai writer Mohamed al-Murr, but found that two volumes had already been produced of his work in English translation, one by Peter Clark and the other by my friend of long ago in Qatar, Jack Briggs. I am still waiting for Mohamed to produce a novel about Dubai and the way it has progressed in...

  20. Chapter 17
    (pp. 117-120)

    For some years now much of my time has been spent on writing children’s books. My first interest in them came about when I was invited by a rich Syrian friend to spend a few days with him at his luxurious home in the south of Spain. One day we were sitting talking when his young son ran past. My friend called him over. He then inquired of the boy whether he knew about the Battle of Badr. The look on the boy’s face told us the name rang no bell. One or two other questions showed that the boy...

  21. Chapter 18
    (pp. 121-124)

    My interest in animals stemmed from a childhood in which animals played perhaps a greater part than in the lives of most children. During my two years in Wadi Halfa in Sudan I was the proud owner of a donkey, and saw my parents riding about on horses and camels. I also recollect owning a rabbit and that we bred pigeons. Later, in Uganda, my father had a bulldog and my mother a parrot; we also had a monkey on a long chain, which had to be got rid of because of its inclination to bite anyone who attempted to...

  22. Chapter 19
    (pp. 125-126)

    I continually promise myself, with each book translated, that it will be the last, and yet, like the nicotine addict, I find myself returning to the habit. Having made the major decision to leave Cairo and go to live in Morocco, I sat down and added up the number of books I had translated from modern Arabic literature: it came to twenty-eight. I was able to persuade myself that I should round it up to thirty, especially when a friend got in touch in Cairo and brought me a large anthology devoted to the Moroccan short story. I have therefore...

  23. Index
    (pp. 127-132)