In a word: translating Arabic literature

Humphrey T Davies, named runner-up of this year’s Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, shares with the challenges and intricacies associated with his little-known art 

When Humphrey T Davies “only” picked up the runner-up prize at the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation last week, it was hardly a disaster. After all, he’s won the award twice previously, both for books by the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury. The comments made by the judges after reading his latest work, the English version of Mourid Barghouti’s memoir, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, said it all. “[Davies is] one of the masters of translation,” they said. “He manages a rare thing – to make you feel you are reading the book in the language in which it was written.”

It’s a skill honed over 15 years of translating some of the Arab world’s most intriguing voices, but it doesn’t get any easier. “This one was difficult because Mourid is very careful about the vocabulary he uses, and very insistent that it is translated precisely,” laughs Davies.

“Since he knows English extremely well, he actually had a lot of input into the translation.”  Not every author is so involved in the process but Davies says it’s preferable when they are - he would never consider editorialising a translation to make it more accessible for a western audience.

What is interesting, however, is that via awards such as the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize (sponsored by the Ghobash family in memory of Saif, the UAE's first Minister of State for Foreign Affairs), Anglophone readers are increasingly discovering the delights of Arab writing for themselves. And with 20 translations under his belt since his career began in 1997, Davies is perfectly placed to explain why.

“We’re in a period of renewal and resurgence in the Arabic novel - and writing has flourished,” he says. “New voices have been found, and there is a critical mass of work. And when you think about how much we hear about the Arab world on a daily basis, I think the news headlines actually open up an imaginative space in people’s minds. They look for answers in literature.”

As the man responsible for translating one of the most famous Arabic books this century, Alaa-Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, Davies should know. But why did that book in particular strike such a chord?

“In the Arab world, it was the sense that Alaa was vocalising people’s distress, cynicism and depression about politics and Egyptian society. But why that worked in the West too is interesting. Perhaps people wanted to listen to a voice that felt right, that explained the situation to them. But it was so readable, and I think that helped.

“You know, I genuinely think a lot of people in the West couldn’t quite believe there was a literary world out here. Maybe The Yacoubian Building and the works of Elias Khoury changed all that, helped break down not just a barrier of resistance but indifference.”

And once that happens, the opportunities for Arabic fiction are endless.

“Exactly. Once that wall has been broken down, all you have to think about is that people are looking for a good read, in the same way they do anywhere else.”

Mourid Barghouti’s I Was Born Here, I Was Born There (Bloomsbury) is out now.