Denys Johnson-Davis, who passed away on Monday 23 May, was one of the most renowned translators of Arabic literature into English. His contribution to the spread of Arabic literature into European and American libraries is unmistakable; with his phenomenal translations of Naguib Mahfouz's works being one of the reasons Mahfouz gained international recognition and eventually winning the Nobel Prize. This piece, originally published in 2012, takes a glimpse into his life as one of the greatest to ever work in the field of Arabic literature.
Just as the AUC Press is publishing the new collection Homecoming including a collection of 50 selected stories translated over the last 60 years by Denys Johnson-Davis. The renowned translator has dedicated his life to this one great project of translation.
The book signing and launch event of Homecoming became in itself a celebration for this man who was described by internationally respected scholar Edward Said as "this age's leader of translation from Arabic to English."
Said was not exaggerating, for Johnson-Davis has alone translated and published over 30 volumes of novels, stories and theatre plays into English. His relationship to the Arabic language and the Arab world that dates back to his childhood.
Born in Canada in 1922, Johnson-Davis spent his childhood between Egypt and Sudan due to his father's work. He was brought back to England due to illness at the age of 12, where he entered a boarding school, and from there to the college, studying Eastern (studies of East)
He studied in London before being allowed to enter Cambridge where he stayed only one year.
Soon after the beginning of WWII, he received a call from the BBC to work as a trainee in the Arabic section, and there, he started his serious learning of Arabic.
Johnson-Davis travelled to Cairo to start teaching Arabic translation at the British Council in the mid-1940s. Two years later, he moved to teaching English at Cairo University where prominent Egyptian scholars were among his students. During these two years, he finished translating his first book from Arabic to English; it was a collection of short stories by Mahmoud Taymour, which he published at his own expense in 1947, with an introduction by Abdel-Rahman Azzam Pasha, the Secretary General of the Arab League at the time.
This stay in Cairo introduced him to some of the greatest writers, such as Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq El-Hakim, Yahia Haqqi, and others. Becoming friends with them, he also translated a number of their works. From there, he left to work in the Gulf until 1954, then upon a request from his father, returned to London to continue studying law. He later practiced for a few months before deciding to open a special office for Middle East Services to translate legal and commercial documents, later he himself describing it as "most destructive to the spirit."
Eventually he closed this office and started a quarterly periodical dedicated to Arabic literature title Voices, of which he issued 12 volumes including translated works of Badr Shaker Assayab, Gabra Ibrahim Gabra, Ghassan Kanafani and many others.
In addition, for two years he supervised a weekly television show titled Sounds and Lights about Arab literature, art and culture. In 1969, he travelled once more, working as a head of Arabic Radio in the Emirates, before travelling to Beirut where he spent four busy years.
Johnson-Davis made great contributions to the translation of Arabic literature, probably more than anyone else. He established a series for Arab authors within Haniman British publishing house that published 24 titles for contemporary writers. Unfortunately the series stopped in the late 1980s following losses in sales. Although they had requested a modest five thousand sterling pounds, the funds were not forthcoming from any Arab organisation or cultural foundation.
However, Johnson-Davis himself did not stop, writing and translating some stories in English for young children such as the famous Goha stories, as well as popular Egyptian folk tales, and also the story of Prophet Mohammed.
During one of his visits tothe Emirates, he met with his friend Ezzedine Ibrahim who was a cultural consultant for Sheikh Zayed, and they cooperated to translate some of the sayings of Prophet Mohammed. It was a huge success and was republished 20 times. They continued the cooperation, translating selected sayings and pieces from the Holy Quran.
Due to the role he played in translating Arabic literature, Johnson-Davis was among the few asked about Naguib Mahfouz before he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. Seven years later, and based on Johnson-Davis recommendation, an annual award was designated with the name of Mahfouz, to be given to the best Arab novel. The prize is funded from the sales of Naguib Mahfouz translated works for which the AUC Press had acquired copyrights only months before the great writer passed away.
Now Johnson-Davis lives between Marrakech and one of the villages near Fayoum (south of Cairo) and although already 90 years old, he has not stopped translating Arabic Literature, and just published 50 short Egyptian stories that collect works shedding light on 60 years of Egyptian short story writing.