Naguib Mahfouz translator: Arabic literature is there for whoever has the talent

Mohammed Saad , Monday 30 Apr 2012

Denis Johnson-Davis played a vital role in introducing modern Arabic literature to the English reader, even before Mahfouz received the Nobel prize

Davis signing Homecoming

The award-winning translator Denys Johnson-Davis had a book signing in the prestigious and historical Café Riche in downtown Cairo, where Johnson-Davis used to meet the late Nobel laureate novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

Homecoming, an anthology of Arabic literature, contains some 50 short stories of many Egyptian writers and it covers the country’s literature in the 20th century. At the event on Sunday, Johnson-Davis said it does not simply cover a temporal period, but also gathers most of the literary spectrums of Egyptian literature in the past century.

Some of the writers, who have some translated works in Johsnpon’s anthology book, were at the event like Bahaa Taher and Mekkawi Saied.

The short stories were selected and translated by Johnson-Davis who has translated the essential works of Naguib Mahfouz and many other renowned Egyptian writers. The book is a tribute to these writers, which in addition to Mahfouz includes Yehia Hakki, Youssef Idris, and later writers such as Mohamed El-Bisatie, Said El-Kafrawi, Bahaa Taher, and Radwa Ashour, as well as new young contemporary writers like Hamdy El-Gazzar, Mansoura Ez Eldin, and Youssef Rakha.

As some of the audience suggested, the book is also a tribute to Johnson’s long career.

Davis has a long history with Arabic literature goes back to the 1940s when he first came to Cairo. He decided to translate into English the works of Mahmoud Taymour and Yehia Hakki among others at a time when translating Arabic literature was not very popular and even practically non-existent. This was before Arabic literature got international recognition after Naguib Mahfouz became the first, and until now, the only writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.

Throughout his long career, which spans over 60 years, Johnson-Davis has produced more that 30 translated volumes of Arabic modern literature including The Essential Naguib Mahfouz (AUC Press, 2007), The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim (AUC Press, 2008) and The Essential Yusuf Idris (AUC Press, 2009).

At the event, Johnson- Davis said a few words to stress the advanced position of Arabic literature and marking the need for talent to translate it: “Arabic literature is there for whoever has the talent.”

The title Homecoming is drawn from one of the short stories included in the book.

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