Humphrey Davies, who died on Nov. 12 in a London hospital after a long battle with ill health, had translated the writings of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and renowned Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, among others. When I met him, he was 74 years old.
“Complications from pancreatic cancer,” according to Clare Davies, his daughter, were to blame.
Mr. Davies was a key player in the translation of current Middle Eastern writers’ prose into English, which was rich in complexity and sensitive to the original. He did this by introducing them to an English-speaking audience. Additionally, he translated nonfiction books, including works from the Renaissance and Middle Ages.
More than 30 works of Arabic literature, including two novels by Mr. Khoury, “Gate of the Sun” (1998; translated in 2005) and “Yalo,” are believed to have been translated by Mr. Davies (2002; translated in 2009). For his translation of Mr. Khoury’s “My Name is Adam,” he received the English PEN Translators Award for 2018.
In addition to works by Egyptian novelists Alaa Al Aswany and Mohamed Mustagab, he translated Mahfouz, including “Thebes at War,” which was first published in 1944 and translated into English the following year.
Davies’ 2004 translation of Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building” was named one of the 50 most outstanding translations of the preceding 50 years by the British Authors’ Society, which was published in 2008.
Taking an unflinching look at the inner lives of the people who live in one Cairo apartment complex, this novel is an important contribution to literature. Mr. Davies, who has lived in Cairo on a number of occasions throughout his life, most recently for the past 27 years, wrote the introduction to the volume.
Although the Yacoubian Building exists, according to him, its literary description does not accurately portray the structure’s actual appearance. In contrast to the “high European style,” which has “balconies ornamented with Greek faces cut from stone,” as he put it, Art Deco is a more understated but no less beautiful exercise in restraint in design.
Before the mid-1950s, there were only a handful of Arabic novels that had been translated into English. A few months after Mr. Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, sparked an even greater interest in Arab literature.
When Mr. Davies appeared on television in a video interview with the literary figure André Naffis-Sahely in 2011, he described how “the West as a whole” (whatever that means) “sort of woke up to the reality that they wanted to know, better comprehend, what was happening in the Arab world,” and that literature “is a route to understanding that.”
When Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker in 2010 that the task of bringing Arabic literature to English-speaking audiences “rests primarily on the dedicated translators and on the modest and heroic presses that have done this job from the beginning,” she was right.
Mr. Davies worked on the translation of four Khoury novels, which were then published by Archipelago Books, a publishing company. “We have lost not only a wonderful translator but also a passionate advocate for Arabic literature,” says Jill Schoolman, publisher and creator of the publication.
In selecting Mr. Davies’ 2011 translation of Mourid Barghouti’s “I Was Born There, I Was Born Here” as a runner-up for the Banipal Prize, the jury noted that he “manages a rare thing—to make you believe you are reading the book in the language in which it was written.”
Humphrey Taman Davies was born on April 6, 1947, in the London borough of Southwark. Her mother, Phyllis Theresa Mabel (Corbett) Davies, was a librarian in her community, and her son’s father, John Howard Davies, worked as a music librarian for the BBC. A degree in Arabic Studies from the Jesus College of Cambridge University, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively, in 1968, served as the foundation for his professional career.
In the following year, he studied at the American University of Cairo’s Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, which is located in Cairo. Later, he spent several years in the Middle East working in the publishing industry, including a stint as a contributor to the compilation of the Egyptian Arabic dictionary. The dictionary’s co-author, Kristina Nelson, married him in 1975, and the couple has two children. Divorce proceedings were initiated in 2002 against the couple.
On the other hand, Mr. Davies received his PhD in Near Eastern studies from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981.
Upon his family’s relocation from the United States to Egypt in 1994, he began working as a humanitarian aid worker for organizations throughout the Middle East, including the Ford Foundation in Khartoum and Save the Children in Tunisia.
Mr. Davies was inspired to start translating modern Arabic literature in the early 2000s by Sayed Ragab, an Egyptian performer and storyteller. An original short story by Ragab, “Rat,” appeared in Banipal, a magazine of contemporary Arabic literature published in the United Kingdom by the Banipal Foundation, which awards the Banipal Prizes. Translations of his work were first published in
Later, the American University in Cairo Press approached him about translating the first of Mr. Mahfouz’s two books that had been published in Egypt. He accepted the invitation. Mr. Al Aswany’s work on “The Yacoubian Building” was a success, and he received numerous requests for his services as a result. During an interview with the New York Times in 2011, he stated, “I’m never short of people who are interested in collaborating on novel translation.”
As well as Clare Davies, Mr. Davies is survived by his son, James Taman Davies, as well as his brother Hugh and his long-term partner, Gassim Hassan, as well as his daughter.
In 2011, when President Hosni Mubarak was deposed, many foreigners were forced to flee Egypt, but Mr. Davies remained steadfast in his love for his adopted home city of Cairo. Having lived in Egypt for such an extended period of time, it was impossible for him to abandon the country.
His passion for Cairo has resulted in the publication of “A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo,” which is the culmination of his research (2018, with Lesley Lababidi).
For the translation process, Mr. Davies outlined a set of guidelines that were unique to him. To ArabLit.org, he stated, “Only translate what you like.” According to the guidelines, translators should “write three drafts, wait a month, and then make a fourth.”
The author’s message was of the utmost importance to him, and getting to the heart of it was his goal. During a talk given after receiving the Banipal Prize in 2010, Mr. Khoury revealed that he was interrogated for nine hours for his film “Gate of the Sun.”
According to the translation, it has been her luck to be able to contact practically all of the living authors whose works she has translated to date.