Tucked away in my email is a note from Humphrey Davies, the longtime British translator of Arabic who passed away Nov. 12. His message is not what you’d expect.
“In a thirteenth-century Arabic text written by a Syrian, I find a reference to the solar month of ‘Kanun al-Asamm.’ The two months called Kanun are distinguished as Kanun al-Awwal and Kanun al-Thani. The Islamic month of Rajab is sometimes given the epithet ‘al-Asamm.’ Can anyone explain why the author refers to ‘Kanun al-Asamm’?”
Sent to a list of scholars and translators, Davies’ question asks about the names for December and January, respectively Kanun al-Awwal (the First) and Kanun al-Thani (the Second) in the old Syrian calendar. The word al-Asamm means “deaf,” thus rendering “Deaf December” or “Deaf January” — a hushed mystery indeed. But the day was saved by Liran Yadgar of Muhlenberg College, who noted that in this month “people are quiet on account of the rain and cold.”
This is the kind of Rubik’s Cube most of us might happily ignore. For Davies such riddles were a whole career.
Well, actually a second career, which makes his huge output even more stunning. Over 30 volumes brought to English since 2003, including nonfiction as well as classical and modern Arabic literature, several of which snagged him the PEN English Writers in Translation Award and four Saif Ghobash Banipal Prizes; he was also shortlisted for Open Letter Books’ Best Translated Book Award in 2014, and the American Literary Translators Association’s National Translation Award in Prose in 2016.
But Herculean efforts aside, Davies also shared humor and warmth with authors, students and translators, giving the gift of himself that can be heard in the outpourings on ArabLit.org’s digital memorial. Those outpourings praise his life and mourn his death and keep a journal of graces and courtesies, of long hours spent leading by the hand through tangled texts and snaking Cairo streets, of tender mercies that pile up as high as the translated books themselves.
“I wanted to finish the path I was on, namely English literature at Cambridge University. But I wanted something different, a bit of exoticism.” This is Davies speaking fluent Arabic on Egyptian TV in 2018, describing his first kiss with the language in the 1960s. “At the time, Arabic teaching at Cambridge paid almost no heed to the spoken language,” he continued. This made it difficult to soldier on. But it was the year he spent at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) — which since 1967 has spirited Davies and thousands like him, including me in 2009, to Egypt and let them taste living, breathing Arabic — that lit the fire in his bones.
It was love at first café visit, near the El-Sayeda Zainab mosque in Cairo. Davies settled in on Youssef el-Gendy street in the historic quarter of Bab el-Louq, and a year later he still wasn’t ready to leave. So he joined a crack team headed by Martin Hinds and El-Said Badawi at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to produce what remains a standard work, the Hinds-Badawi Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic. That’s also how he met Everett Rowson, who became a lifelong friend.
“I was only on the Hinds-Badawi project for its first year, from 1973 to 1974,” says Rowson, a retired professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University. “But it was an eventful year, as we toiled through the ’73 war,” namely the October 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. It wasn’t the last time Davies saw the outlines of havoc from his Cairo perch. During the 2011 revolution he watched protests roll through Tahrir Square like whitecaps, painting his dear city in furious tones. “This is not an event, having lived in Egypt for thirty years or more, that one could possibly want not to witness,” he told poet André Naffis-Sahely that summer. “So I stayed because I couldn’t leave, in the sense that I couldn’t pull myself away.”
After three years with the Hinds-Badawi group Davies hammered off to Berkeley, California, in an era immortalized by Joan Didion’s “The White Album.” So did his friend Rowson, who joined Davies to finish a Yale doctoral thesis while Davies wrapped up his own doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. This he did in 1981, but after a short stint as a faculty member, he left academia for good. The Middle East still beckoned.
From 1983 to 1997 Davies had his first career: development and funding organizations like Save the Children in Palestine and the Ford Foundation in Sudan. “Humphrey always spoke about his time in Sudan with extreme fondness,” says Adam Talib, associate professor of Arabic literature at Durham University. Egyptian novelist and playwright Hamdy el-Gazzar, whose novels “Black Magic” and “Secret Pleasures” Davies translated for AUC Press, recalls that Davies “supported independent performing groups like El Tanbura, which made traditional Egyptian music, and the El-Warsha Theater Troupe.” This enriched Davies’ Arabic, filled his canteen of Middle East culture and handed him friendships with “many of Cairo’s independent creatives,” says el-Gazzar. All are hallmarks of Davies’ later work as a translator.
That work kicked off in 1997 with a project both “ambitious and addictive”: editing and translating Yusuf al-Shirbini’s “Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded,” a 17th-century Ottoman Arabic text and the subject of Davies’ doctoral thesis at Berkeley. A bawdy satire of rural Egypt, “Brains Confounded” pits coarse bumpkins against refined urban elites, playing with language and spilling over into love, food, flatulence and more.
It took three volumes to capture the whole thing, including a priceless glossary of early modern Egyptian dialect that came out from Peeters Publishers in 2007.
“This undertaking encouraged me to try my hand at making a living from translation and allied skills,” said Davies. He later revised his translation for the NYU Press Library of Arabic Literature, a series he went back to time and again. But it was American University in Cairo Press that gave him a home. They took dozens of his translations over the years including his best-known work, Alaa al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building,” a roman à clef about the titular Art Deco pile on Cairo’s Talaat Harb Street that embodies the decline of Egypt since Nasser’s 1952 military coup. Davies also translated Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s titles like “Midaq Alley” and “Thebes at War,” as well as books about Mahfouz like Gamal al-Ghitany’s “The Mahfouz Dialogues.”
But Davies was no slave to the canon. He ushered in new talent, baptizing whole careers and becoming one of the most sought-after translators of Arabic. Bahaa Taher’s “Sunset Oasis”; Mourid Barghouti’s “I Was Born Here, I Was Born There”; Ahmed Alaidy’s “Being Abbas El Abd”; Mohamed Mustagab’s “Tales from Dayrut”; Khaled al-Berry’s “Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise: A Jihadist’s Own Story” — all found their way to the sunlight thanks to Davies and AUC Press.
When Mohamed Shoair published “The Story of the Banned Book,” out posthumously next year about the political controversy surrounding Mahfouz’s novel “Children of the Alley,” Rutgers professor Samah Selim offered to translate but stepped aside when Davies came knocking. “No rational person could refuse Humphrey Davies’ translation,” Shoair remembers Selim telling him. “The Arabic edition itself, to say nothing of the English, will be more accurate and complete because of my discussions with him.”
Given Davies’ Egyptophile booklist, it’s little wonder he stood at the center of the country’s culture scene. “He was a downtown Cairo character,” says Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha. “He could down three bottles of Stella beer at Al Horreyya café without batting an eyelid.” Others recall passing drinks around Davies’ Abdeen apartment where writers, translators, academics, “and if you were lucky one of his cats!” says “Midnight in Cairo” author Raphael Cormack, would gather to debate books and film. It was a heady brew but never a frosty one. “He was extremely unpretentious about it,” recalls Matthew Keegan, a professor at Barnard College. “He just put people at ease.”
Although gentle with others, Davies was strict with himself, at least when it came to the work. David Tresilian, professor at the American University of Paris, remembers Davies’ desk “loaded with books and papers aside from a kind of central island where what he was currently working on took pride of place.” As if 30-plus translated volumes wasn’t enough, all who knew Davies say he was a diligent, prolific honeybee, with an iron regimen for what and how to translate. This may have something to do with when he thought a translation was done.
“When I have to submit it to get paid,” he told the literary website Full Stop in 2014.
A glance at the writing itself gives away Davies’ unique precision paired with dynamism. There’s a glee when he sniffs out culprits like “Deaf December” and other tasty soupçons. Cormack uses the word “meticulous” to say what Davies was up to with “Field Guide to the Street Names of Cairo,” co-authored with Lesley Lababidi and one of his overlooked nonfiction works (another being “The Turks in Egypt and Their Cultural Legacy”).
“During the process of researching the ‘Field Guide,’” says Cormack, “he went to ministries to search the old daftars, managed to find sources in the library of the railway museum, and endlessly scanned biographical dictionaries. I still remember how excited he was to discover that Dubreih Street was named after a largely unknown figure called Yussef Dubreih, who helped found Egypt’s first secret police force.”
Admired for his range in Arabic, Davies made some authors wonder how much he really knew. “I had doubts before I read anything by him,” admits Aziz Mohammed, author of “The Critical Case of a Man Called K,” published this year by AUC Press, “when I learned the man who would translate was known for versions of classical works.” After all, the Arabic of “The Critical Case” roams from standard to colloquial, and between rarefied twaddle and gritty street jive. Was Davies up to it? But with long, searching conversations — “Each day,” says al-Berry, “I thought, ‘He can’t possibly answer my call’ since we’d already talked so much, but there he’d be, heartily picking up where we left off” — Davies spun threads of gold, leaving the narrator of “The Critical Case” with “a voice that brings together intense literariness and nimble modernity,” in Mohammed’s words.
Similar tasks faced Davies with Elias Khoury, a Lebanese writer and intellectual, five of whose novels Davies brought to English. Khoury’s book “Yalo” features a main character from the Assyrian, or Syrian, or Syriac, or Suryoyo, community in Beirut. To nail their dialect and its political tripwires, the translation needed vigor and delicacy. Davies delivered with a bang even though such funambulist feats were grueling. While Davies was translating Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun,” he subjected the author “to a monster nine-hour session in a very hot apartment in Alexandria, which saw him stripped down to his undershirt by the time we’d finished.”
But Davies scaled his self-described Everest with another, long dead Lebanese author: Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, the Christian convert to Islam and a thrumming nerve center of the “Nahda” or “Arab Awakening,” a 19th and early 20th century ferment of political reform, scientific discovery, artistic novelty and Arabic revivalism. The latter is al-Shidyaq’s legacy. As a stalwart against “Turkization,” he made his writings into an Arabist’s fever dream, cataloging rare words and straying off into food, genitalia and other serious matters.
Of no work is this truer than “Leg Over Leg, or the Turtle in the Tree: Concerning the Fariyaq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be,” a four-volume goliath translated by Davies for the Library of Arabic Literature. Part “Tristram Shandy,” part “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” part “Anatomy of Melancholy” and part “Ulysses,” al-Shidyaq’s “Leg Over Leg” tells a loose autobiography of the author’s early schooling, religious persecution, travels in Egypt and Malta, and more. To untangle the word tallies, unsteadying even for a native speaker, Davies used 19th-century thesauri available to al-Shidyaq. He plied Google’s Latin translation, prioritizing aesthetic effect over semantics. Of such creativity Patricia Storace wrote that “Leg Over Leg” “will eventually be acknowledged as one of the most important translations of the twenty-first century.”
Once the wave of incredulity passes, the stunned reader of “Leg Over Leg” and other Library of Arabic Literature works by Davies, including the 13th-century “Book of Charlatans,” a guide to swindling the gullible with knockout drugs and sleight-of-hand, realizes that only with a finger pressed firmly on Arabic culture could someone lift such boulders. Decades spent in the region are the least requirement. “Humphrey was a special kind of translator who lived in two languages and cultures,” says al-Berry. “He understood that language and culture are like genetic traits.” To interpret the way Davies did may at last mean conducting from here to there, acting as a vessel between two sources that heave with water. It may require the kind of a person only few can be.
In 2018, Davies went to Beirut to clean al-Shidyaq’s mausoleum. With him were Khoury, Zeina Halaby of the American University of Beirut, and translators Rana Issa and Suneela Mubayi. They recited poetry for the fallen. They read the names on the stones. “What would Humphrey do?” writes Issa looking back on that day, “I ask myself as I confront the untranslatable.” They cleared debris and dusted al-Shidyaq’s tomb, then headed back to Issa’s home to rest and drink lemonade and try to get on with the important work of living.