Without the contributions of the legendary translator Denys Johnson-Davies, who passed away in Cairo at the age of 94, on May 22, 2017, much of the West might not have known of Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988, or of several other renowned Arab writers. His father’s work exposed Johnson-Davies to Arabic from an early age. Born in Canada in 1922, he left that country at the age of two, never to return, and then spent the majority of his childhood in Cairo, Uganda, and Sudan. From his mid to late 30s, Johnson-Davies decided to study Arabic, spending a summer in Cairo and then enrolling in the School of Oriental Studies in London before working towards an advanced degree at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, at the age of 16. Although Johnson-Davies spent some time in England, he preferred Egypt and other Arab countries, and spent the rest of his life until his death traveling to them and living in the Middle East for long periods of time, where he grew content.
Perhaps more familiar with the early politics of translation from Arabic to English than many others, Johnson-Davies shared a very telling experience, where he criticized some Western scholars who believe no other important Arabic text exists other than the “Arabian Nights”: “They couldn’t bring themselves to believe that an Arab…probably sitting in the desert somewhere…could be sophisticated…So it took a long time for people to get used to the fact that possibly something could come out of the Arab world.”
Known for transforming the position of Arabic literature in English translation with his contributions, Johnson-Davies produced over 30 volumes of modern Arabic literature, among which number his 2006 memoir, “Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature,” and his last work, the 2002 “Homecoming: Sixty Years of Egyptian Short Stories.”
This is an excerpt of “Setting the Standards for Arabic Translation: Denys Johnson-Davies (1922-2017),” edited by Al Jadid Editors. The full feature is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 74, 2018.
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