Plenty of non-native students of Arabic would describe mastery of the language as an elusive goal. Having studied Arabic on and off since 2014, I can provide a personal confirmation of its status as one of the world’s most difficult languages for English speakers. Even many Arabs struggle with Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the register often taught at European and North American universities but one that sees only limited use outside the Arab world’s academic circles. Still, no Arabic dialect can match MSA’s complexity and precision.
Humphrey Taman Davies, a British-born scholar of Arabic, is the rare foreigner who not only could grasp the full breadth of the literary language but could also translate its challenging grammar and rich vocabulary into English.
Davies died of pancreatic cancer at a hospital in London on November 12, 2021, a tragic loss to the century-long campaign to introduce Arabic literature to the Anglosphere. His legacy will guide generations of Arabic translators to come.
Davies‘ translations of works by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988, rank among the British scholar’s most celebrated accomplishments. Davies rendered Mahfouz’s novel “Thebes at War” in English in 2003, followed by “Midaq Alley” in 2011. Though the American academic Trevor LeGassick had attempted his own translation of the latter novel in 1966, the website ArabLit noted “numerous complaints about variable quality
in the Mahfouz translations” that preceded Davies’. The British translator brought more nuance to his own recreation of Mahfouz’s work.
In a 2016 dissertation for the University of Leeds, the Saudi scholar Bader Altamimi highlighted the major ways in which Davies’ translation of “Midaq Alley” diverged from LeGassik’s approach: “For lexical words, the results show that Davies’ tends to transliterate foreign words and supplement them with extratextual gloss, reproduces the structures of proper nouns, preserves the terms of respect by literal translation and translates literally the reporting verbs.”
The conclusions of Altamimi’s study speak to the superiority of Davies’ work: “Generally, the findings show that Davies stays close to the source text compared to LeGassick who moves much further from the source text.”
“The literary world has just lost one of its finest Arabic-English translators.”
While Davies entered the world of Arabic literature later than many other translators, few could rival his command of MSA. In a Facebook post two days after his death, the American University in Cairo Press dubbed Davies “a towering figure in Arabic translation,” adding, “The literary world has just lost one of its finest Arabic-English translators.”
In addition to Mahfouz, Davies translated works by the Egyptian authors Alaa Al Aswany and Mohamed Mustagab, the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, and the Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti. The translator landed some of the most prestigious awards in the field, including the PEN Translation Prize and — multiple times — the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The British Society of Authors also lauded his translation of an Al Aswany novel, “The Yacoubian Building.”
Davies spent decades studying Arabic and living in the Arab world before embarking on his first translation, a testament to the years that MSA can take to master. Born on April 6, 1947, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Arab studies from the University of Cambridge in 1968 and a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981. He spent part of the 1970s learning Arabic in Cairo and working in the Middle East, then returned to North Africa in the 1980s and 1990s to assist development charities such as Save the Children in Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia.
Davies spent decades studying Arabic and living in the Arab world before embarking on his first translation.
The translator’s time in the region highlights how his love for the Arab world underpinned his passion for Arabic. In an ArabLit article entitled “Ten Rules for Translating,” he advised prospective translators, “Only translate what you like.” Davies also displayed an understated sense of humor, giving rules six through ten as, “Translate nothing till you have a contract for it.” As a freelance writer, I have learned to live by a motto similar to Davies’.
Having taken MSA classes for much of the past seven years, I had heard of Davies well before his passing late last year. In fact, it seems nigh impossible to study Arabic without his name surfacing at one point or another. When I mentioned to a classmate at the Qalam wa Lawh Center for Arabic Studies in Rabat that I was writing an article on Davies, she recalled researching his style of translation during her time at Durham University. Though his death represents an incalculable loss, his work on Arabic literature will continue to inspire current and future students of MSA.
During Davies’ lifetime, he did whatever he could to share his knowledge with the next generation of translators. A 2018 flyer advertises a “literary translation workshop” that he coordinated in collaboration with the American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo, his longtime affiliate. He also made use of Google Translate, the best friend of the undergraduate Arabic student, and Urban Dictionary, a tool all too familiar to any millennial.
“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,” wrote Kevin Blankinship, one of Davies’ fellow scholars of Arabic, following Davies’ death. “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,” Blankinship added.
“But Herculean efforts aside, Davies also shared humor and warmth with authors, students and translators, giving the gift of himself.”
Despite Davies’ passing, the range of Arabic literature available to the English-speaking world seems to grow wider by the day. A little over a month after his death, the Australian website Happy Mag prepared a list of “20 of the best Arabic language books” translated into English.
The roster contains some familiar names, among them “The Butterfly’s Burden,” a collection by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Davies’ translation of “The Yacoubian Building” also appears. The Happy Mag list struck me as all the more notable for the newer names that it features, such as “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” by the Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi, and “Celestial Bodies,” by the Omani writer Jokha Alharthi.
“Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a novel set during the Iraq War that makes use of magic realism, won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014. The English translation of “Celestial Bodies,” a novel recounting the tale of three sisters experiencing the evolution of Oman’s society, landed the International Booker Prize just three years ago in 2019.
The ability of a younger generation of Arab authors and their English translators to penetrate Western markets testifies to the ongoing strength of the movement to bring Arabic literature to Europe and North America.
Davies and his fellow translators served as intermediaries between the Arab and Western worlds.
Davies injected this campaign with momentum. His death might have closed one chapter in this literary saga, but English-speaking audiences across the globe will still be reading Mahfouz, Alharthi, their contemporaries, and their successors well into the future.
Davies and his fellow translators served as intermediaries between the Arab and Western worlds, helping one culture understand the other through the bridge of literature. Thanks to these translators’ command of MSA, any English speaker can read faithful recreations of the world’s best Arabic novels without having to learn one of the most difficult languages on Earth.
“A translator must be like a valet to his authors,” Davies said in an interview published only a few months before his passing, “always supportive but never taking the liberty of aping them.”