"Winning the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize twice represents for me, primarily, recognition of the novels themselves. Both The Gate of the Sun and Yalo are works of extraordinary strength that non-Arabic readers need to have available."
Humphrey Davies, on winning the 2010 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize.

Humphrey Davies has twice been the winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation (in 2006 and 2010 – the first and fifth years of the prize) and twice been runner-up (in 2010 and 2012).

He has an Arabic degree from Cambridge University and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He also studied at the American University in Cairo's Center for Arabic Studies Abroad. He started translating in 1997, with his first translation, a short story Rat by Sayed Ragab, being published in Banipal 14 in 2000. During this period he was approached by the American University in Cairo Press and asked to translate an early Naguib Mahfouz novel (Thebes at War, 2003). He has also translated for AUC Press Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2004) and Friendly Fire (2009), Ahmed Alaidy's Being Abbas el Abd (2006), Gamal al-Ghitani’s Pyramid Texts and Hamdy el-Gazzar’s Black Magic (both 2007), Mohamed Mustagab’s Tales of Dayrut (2008), and Khaled al-Berry’s Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise (2009).

His translation of Elias Khoury’s novel The Gate of the Sun (Harvill-Secker, 2005) won the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006 and his later translation of Khoury’s novel Yalo (MacLehose, 2009) won the prize for 2010, with his translation of Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (Sceptre, 2009) being joint runner-up for the same prize. In 2012 he was runner-up for his translation of I Was Born There, I Was Born Here by Mourid Barghouti.

He has also translated a collection of three one-act plays by Effat Yehia entitled I’ve Had Enough for the Cairo publisher Dar al-Ain (2009), Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (MacLehose, 2011) and Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaqq Alley (AUCP 2011).

His latest translation, for the recently-established New York University Library of Arabic Literature, is the first two volumes of (Ahmed) Faris al-Shidyaq's Leg over Leg, being published by the NYU Press in June this year, and excerpted in Banipal 46. Volumes Three and Four will be published in 2014. Humphrey Davies is presently a member of the faculty of the American University in Cairo.


In 2010, after winning the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for the second time, Humphrey Davies recalled in more detail his journey into literary translation:

I studied Arabic at Cambridge (1965-8), where I took a 1st, and at the American University in Cairo's Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (1968-69). After working in publishing in the Middle East and later (1972-5), in Cairo, on the preparation of the Hinds-Badawi Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic, I went to the US, where I completed a doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981. From 1983 to 1997 I worked in the Arab World (Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia) for non-governmental community development and funding organizations.

In 1997, I started translating as part of a larger project of mine – the preparation of a critical edition, translation and lexicon of an Egyptian work of the Ottoman period, Yusuf al-Shirbini’s Hazz al-Quhuf bi-Sharh Qasid Abi Shaduf (Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded) (Vol 1: Arabic text, Leuven, Peeters, 2004; Vol. 2: Translation 2007; Vol. 3: Lexicon forthcoming). This undertaking proved both ambitious, confronting me with many tough translational issues, and addictive, and encouraged me to try my hand at making a living from translation and allied skills.

My first translation of modern literature grew out of my interest in the work of a friend, Sayed Ragab, who writes in Egyptian Arabic. His short story Rat was published in Banipal (2000, thus my first published translation), while his Shooq appeared in www.wordswithoutborders.com (2005). During this period I was approached by the American University in Cairo Press and asked to translate an early Naguib Mahfouz novel (Thebes at War, 2003); since then I have translated, for the same press, Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2004) and Friendly Fire (2009), Ahmed Alaidy's Being Abbas el Abd (2006), Gamal al-Ghitani’s Pyramid Texts and Hamdy el-Gazzar’s Black Magic (both 2007), Mohamed Mustagab’s Tales of Dayrut (2008) and Khaled al-Berry’s Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise (2009). Without the dedication of the AUC Press to the translation of modern Arabic fiction into English my life as a translator would have been almost unimaginable. Banipal (www.banipal.co.uk) and www.wordswithoutborders.com have also continued to provide a platform for shorter translations (stories from Al-Aswany’s collection Friendly Fire, and a chapter from Hamdy El Gazzar’s Black Magic in Banipal 26).

My translation of Elias Khoury’s novel The Gate of the Sun (Harvill-Secker 2005) won the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006 and my translation of the same author’s novel Yalo (MacLehose 2009) have been awarded the same prize for 2010, with my translation of Bahaa Taher’s  Sunset Oasis (Sceptre 2009) being joint runner-up for the same prize. The initial draft of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun took me some eight weeks of full-time work during the summer of 2004, part of it in Alexandria. By good luck, the author was in Alexandria briefly during the same period and he and I spent one nine-hour session reviewing my queries. Such contact with the author is, I believe, extremely important; to date I have been fortunate enough to be able to consult almost all the living authors whose works I have translated (I have questions for the dead too, when I meet them).

Winning the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize twice represents for me, primarily, recognition of the novels themselves. Both The Gate of the Sun and Yalo are works of extraordinary strength that non-Arabic readers need to have available.

Forthcoming are translations of Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (MacLehose 2011), the sequel to Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (Bloomsbury 2011), and Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaqq Alley (AUCP 2011).

I live in Cairo and remain convinced that the contact with authors, some of them still unknown outside the Arab World, and the immersion in their environment that this makes possible are vital for me as a translator.

Humphrey Davies
2010

To listen to a discussion between Humphrey and the Cairo Book Club about his translation of I Was Born There, I Was Born Here click here.




Contributor's Issues
Banipal No 25 Spring 2006
Banipal No 14 Summer 2002
Banipal No 43 Celebrating Denys Johnson-Davies (2012)
Banipal No 46 80 New Poems (2013)


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