Cairo events meant winning translator and author were absent from London ceremonies
Saudi Gazette 6 February 2011
The Cairo-based British translator Humphrey Davies was due in London last Monday to receive in person the 2010 Saif Ghobash -Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation at the annual Translation Prizes awards ceremony. A panel of four judges had unanimously chosen him as winner of the £3,000-Sterling prize for his translation of Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s novel “Yalo”, published in the UK by the Quercus imprint MacLehose Press.
But as the day of Davies’s planned departure for London drew near the streets and squares around his apartment in downtown Cairo, where he has lived for many years, erupted in dramatic protests, violence and flames.
Humphrey’s brother Hugh Davies, a violinist with English National Opera, explained that Humphrey could have tried to take a taxi to the airport and to leave for London. But although he had very much wanted to be in London, Humphrey had told his brother in a telephone conversation that he did not want to leave his adopted country of Egypt. “He says it’s a very historic time, he feels tectonic plates are shifting. And he wants to be there.”
Hugh Davies picked up the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize on Humphrey’s behalf on Monday night from the guest presenter at the Translation Prizes Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Stothard quoted a judge of the prize, novelist Margaret Drabble, as saying “Yalo” is “a tour de force for both author and translator... an important and complex book which brings the history of Lebanon vividly, painfully and colorfully to life.”
In all, six literary translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors, with support from Arts Council, England, were awarded during the ceremony at Kings Place. The winners of prizes for translation from French, German, Spanish, Hebrew and Italian read selections from their translations. In Davies’s absence an extract from “Yalo” was read by the awards secretary of the Society of Authors Paula Johnson.
The prize-givings were followed by the annual Sebald Lecture, delivered by fiction writer Ali Smith. The lecture is named in honor of the late German writer and academic W G Sebald, founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. In her inspiring lecture Smith explored many aspects of literary translation, with particular reference to Sebald’s works.
Elias Khoury had been due to travel to London to accompany Davies to the Translation Prizes and to a reception organized by Banipal at the AM Qattan Foundation's Mosaic Rooms on Tuesday evening in celebration both of Davies’s win and of the fifth anniversary of the Banipal Prize. But in a public statement Khoury said he had dropped his plan to travel to London from Berlin as “a sign of friendship” towards Humphrey Davies.
“I want once again to insist on the fact that the translator is a partner in the process of creativity,” Khoury’s statement said. “Yalo can now speak English better than me and he began, through the work of Humphrey, a new journey and a new life.”
Davies’s winning of the 2010 Banipal Prize was all the more remarkable for being the second occasion on which he had won the prize for a translation of a Khoury novel. He won the prize in 2006, its inaugural year, for his translation of Khoury’s great Palestinian novel “Gate of the Sun”.
Khoury’s statement said: “This is the second time that I have accompanied Humphrey in this adventure. I want to praise his understanding and creativity that made our work together a real pleasure.”
Khoury ended by saying: “The struggle for democracy and freedom that began in Tunisia and is shaking dictatorship and despotism and corruption in Egypt will open the way for a new Arab world. I am sure that Yalo, in his prison in Beirut, is beginning to feel the impact of the Egyptian freedom and is ready to rewrite the stories of our Arab experience with oppression.”
Margaret Drabble’s fellow judges of the Banipal Prize were the translator and Professor of Comparative Literature at Warwick University Susan Basnett; the translator and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University Elliott Colla, and, on behalf of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature, Yasir Suleiman, Professor of Modern Arabic Studies and Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Davies not only won the 2010 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize but was also joint runner-up for his translation of “Sunset Oasis” by Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher. The Egyptian-American translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid was the other joint runner-up for his translation of “Cities Without Palms” by the Sudanese writer Tarek Eltayeb, published in the UK by Arabia Books.
The reception in the Mosaic Rooms was compered by Banipal co-founder and publisher Margaret Obank. Translator Peter Clark, a trustee of the Banipal Trust, read an extract from “Yalo”. Hugh Davies [pictured] gave a lively picture of Humphrey’s career since he graduated with a first class degree in Arabic from Jesus College, Cambridge, in the late 1960s.
Humphrey’s CV includes working for Oxford University Press, doing a PhD at Berkeley and working with his tutor Martin Hinds on a dictionary of colloquial Arabic. “I would say the theme of Humphrey’s scholarship, what he put his considerable scholarly abilities to, is the service of demotic Arabic rather than classical Arabic,” Hugh Davies said. Humphrey worked for Save the Children and for the Ford Foundation before deciding to devote himself to literary translation.
Hugh held up one of the three volumes of Humphrey's work related to Yusuf Al-Shirbini's "Kitab Hazz Al-Quhuf Bi-Sharh Qasid Abi Shaduf "17th century text on the Egyptian peasant, (translated as "Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded"). In this project, Humphrey had "somehow put together his scholarship and his interest in local Egyptian language." The volumes include a critical edition of the text, an English translation, and a lexicon of 17th-century Egyptian Arabic, published in the Analecta Orientalia Lovensiana series published by Peeters.
Critic, translator and prizewinning poet André Naffis-Sahely [pictured below] had originally been due to hold a conversation with Davies and Khoury at the Mosaic Rooms. In their absence he gave an eloquent talk encompassing “Yalo” and Khoury’s oeuvre more generally, as well as questions of Arab censorship and the translation of literary Arabic. [a PDF of the talk is posted on the Quercus website]
Naffis-Sehely noted that at Society of Authors Translation Prizes awards the previous evening “it struck me that prizes such as the Scott Moncrieff and the John Florio, for French and Italian respectively, have been running for over forty-five years, whereas the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize only for five.”
At one time translation of Arabic literature was considered peripheral and it was only in the late 1980s with Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize and the efforts of translators such as Denys Johnson Davies and Paul Theroux that this started to change. “The need to examine the ‘Arab Other’ since 9/11 has propelled Arabic literature beyond its former status as mere exotica,” Naffis-Sahely said. He wondered how long this will last. “In the 1970s and 80s it was a common sight to see anthologies of Hungarian poets and Romanian novelists in prominent shelves in boo shops ...where are they now?”
Christopher MacLehose spoke warmly of Khoury as “a very great writer” with a gift for storytelling, a “deeply learned observer of the Arab world, of the Palestinian world, and Israel’s part in it.” And he said Humhrey's winning of the prize for the second time "may say something to the American publishers that they haven't already grasped: namely that Humphrey Davies is the outstanding translator of Elias Khoury, and of others too, and that this is a noble, heroic and entirely successful publisher!"
In June MacLehose Press is to publish Davies’s translation of a third Khoury novel, “As Though She Were Sleeping”. MacLehose paid tribute to Andrea Belloli, also present at the Mosaic Rooms, the "brilliant line editor" of both "Gate of the Sun" and "Yalo", who has just finished with "As Though She Were Sleeping".
Paul Starkey, Professor of Arabic at Durham University and Chair of the Banipal Trust, reviewed the first five years of the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize, which is sponsored by UAE businessman and diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash in memory of his late father and literature lover Saif Ghobash. Starkey said: “We are optimistic that this Arabic translation prize will go from strength to strength in the years that follow.”