Internationally renowned translator Johnson-Davies speaks at AUC

Published December 2nd, 2009 - 08:53 GMT

In the first of its lecture series, In Translation, The American University in Cairo’s newly established Center for Translation Studies, hosted leading Arabic-English translator Denys Johnson-Davies who shared his memories and encounters with Arab writers during his extensive literary career, including Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfik Al Hakim, Yusuf Idris, Yahya Hakki, Edwar Al Kharrat, Tayeb Saleh and Salwa Bakr. Described by Palestinian thinker Edward Said as “the leading Arabic-English translator of our time," Johnson-Davies also discussed the challenges he faced in translating Arabic literature into English. “It is perhaps natural, having lived most of my life in Egypt, that I have given pride of place in my translating activities to Egyptian writers,” said Johnson-Davies, addressing the attendees. “The Arab world is made up of many countries, and it is difficult to keep up with what is being published in all of them. Despite this, however, I have endeavored to introduce to the English reading public a considerable number of Arab writers from both the Mashriq and the Maghrib,” he stressed.

Having translated more than 25 novels and short story collections of several Arabic writers, Johnson-Davies is the first person to translate the works of Naguib Mahfouz. One of the first stories he translated was Zaabalawi, which he included in the Oxford University Press volume of Modern Arabic Short Stories, and then found its way into the Norton anthology, Masterpieces of World Literature as the only example of writing from modern Arabic literature. “Before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, I had not translated a complete book by Mahfouz, but after the prize and once AUC Press entered into a contract with Doubleday to jointly publish the greater part of his work in English translation, I was given the opportunity to translate some of his work, on favorable terms,” Johnson-Davies recounts. “I chose first of all to produce a selection of his short stories, feeling that such a volume should do reasonably well and that, along the years, stories would be taken from it for publication in anthologies. This has in fact proved to be the case, and Zaabalawi has been republished several times, particularly in the United States,” he said. 

During his lecture, Johnson-Davies drew examples from a memoir he wrote recently titled, Memories in Translation: A life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature (AUC Press, 2006), about his experience as a translator and the Arab authors he translated. He recalled the obstacles he faced in publishing the Modern Arabic Short Stories, a volume of Arabic short stories taken from all over the Arab world, in an to attempt to introduce modern Arabic literature to the west. “The year was 1967; not the best year in which to produce a volume of Arabic short stories, and several English publications refused to review the book,” he said. “The situation was not helped by the fact that no Arab government or institution bought a single copy of the book, and Oxford University Press was unable to sell the very limited edition they had printed; it was later sold off as a paperback in Lebanon only,” he added.

Johnson-Davies believes that today publishers are primarily business people who are risk averse, particularly with a book translated from Arabic. “English readers, it is known, keep away from any translated book, be it even from French,” he said, adding that he has always sought to find a publisher who could be relied upon to look favorably on Arabic translations,” he noted.

Launched this year, the Center for Translation Studies aims to foster collaborative outreach programs and research in translation and translation studies to enhance interaction and cooperation between AUC, Egyptian, regional and international institutions. “We will focus on interdisciplinary work and will encourage the free exchange of ideas to promote translation as a cultural political practice that can enable innovation and generate new spaces for the development of individual societies and cross-cultural conversation,” said Samia Mehrez, professor of Arab and Islamic civilizations, and the center’s director.

Besides the lecture series, the center will organize a yearly international translation studies conference, and theoretical, historical and practical thematic workshops and seminars for researchers, students, faculty members and professional translators. Also, a program, Translators in Residence will be held to host distinguished translation theorists and practitioners each semester to take part in teaching in the theoretical seminars and the practical workshop, in addition to a yearly bilingual journal, In Translation, that would showcase the best student in translation, review translations in the market, suggest works for translation and interview translators and publishers. 

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