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Memories In Translation: A Life Between The…
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Memories In Translation: A Life Between The Lines Of Arabic Literature

by Denys Johnson-Davies

Other authors: Najīb Maḥfūẓ (Foreword)

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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.… (more)

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Denys Johnson-Davies is a respected Arabic-English translator with more than 30 translated volumes to his credit. In recognition of this contribution to Arabic literature, he was awarded the 2007 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Personality of the Year in the Field of Culture. According to Wikipedia, this award is “one of the most prestigious and well-funded prizes in the Arab World” and is valued at around $300,000.

Johnson-Davies spent his early childhood years in Egypt, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya, until amebic dysentery caused him to be sent back to England at age twelve. Passing the admissions test to Cambridge at age fourteen, he spent a year at the School of Oriental Studies before being admitted to Cambridge at age sixteen, where he studied Hebrew and Arabic. The latter led to an offer of employment with the Arabic section of the BBC, where he became proficient in Arabic. His involvement with translation progressed while living intermittently in England and various Middle Eastern countries, during periods of employment as a teacher of translation, college professor, American oil company representative, lawyer, publisher and writer.

Johnson-Davies’ memoir is organized primarily by significant influences and Arabic authors, of whom I was only familiar with Naguib Mahfouz and Tayed Salih. Interwoven with his discussion of the authors with whom he worked are brief references to issues encountered with translation, some general and some specific to Arabic-English translation. He describes his philosophy of translation as the art of taking the Arabic text and reworking it, not into an exact translation, but rather into acceptable English. Using as an example Salih's The Season of Migration, a book translated into 21 other languages, he notes that those translating Arabic works into other languages often actually work from the English translation, rather than the original Arabic. Examples are also included of the manner in which political and religious issues impact Arabic writers and translators, even on the level of decisions such as whether to use colloquial language or classical Arabic.

Johnson-Davies describes the process of selecting works for translation as significantly different in the case of Arabic writing versus more common languages, such as French and German. In the latter instance, the selection is often made by a publisher, who then seeks out an appropriate translator. His process of choosing Arabic works for translation was generally the opposite, as mainstream publishers did not employ individuals interested in or fluent in Arabic. Therefore, his role as a translator often began with seeking a commitment from a publishing house. Johnson-Davies’ interactions with the Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, was offered as an interesting example of this dilemma. Despite being the first to translate a Mahfouz short story, Johnson-Davies declined Mahfouz's request that he translate his novels, feeling that they would likely not draw an English audience. Mahfouz later signed a contract with the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, who approached Johnson-Davies about assisting with a team approach to translation of his novels. He once again declined, believing that translation should be performed solo. Although he did eventually translate some of Mahfouz's works, in the end, the mainstream publication of Mahfouz’s considerable volume of works through AUC Press was likely a major factor in his being awarded the Nobel Prize.

I enjoyed this memoir as a fast, light read that was written largely in an anecdotal style, although I would have gotten more out of it had I been familiar with more of the authors. I also wish that Johnson-Davies had gone into greater depth regarding his experience and insights regarding the translation process itself.
2 vote Linda92007 | Mar 24, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Denys Johnson-Daviesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Maḥfūẓ, NajībForewordsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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