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Spread the Word

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | March 2006 | pp. 112–115

After decades of globe-trotting, Denys Johnson-Davies has earned his place as the world’s most recognized name in Arabic literary translation and is now engaged in one of his most ambitious tasks yet: translating the Holy Qur’an

Denys Johnson-Davies with Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz at his home in 1996


Denys Johnson-Davies does not have a place he calls home. “I am very pleased I don’t have a home,” says the internationally acclaimed translator of Arabic literature, who now lives with his wife, Italian photographer Paola Crociani, in a small house with a large garden at the end of a cul-de-sac in Marrakech—when he’s not traveling, that is. 


“I suppose I felt that about Egypt, that it was home. But I don’t really feel the necessity for a home. I am looking around the world now, and saying to myself, ‘Where would I like to live?’ I find it difficult to decide. I find the world a pretty bloody place nowadays. Nowhere is safe. So, Marrakech; but no way would it be England, for instance. Anyway, it is too cold for me,” he says, sitting back in a lounge chair at Zamalek’s President Hotel during a recent sojourn in Cairo. 


“Am I right in settling in Morocco, in Marrakech? I like peace and quiet, and these things mean something to me at my age. I went there much earlier and I felt I couldn’t take it. It was too dull.”


Johnson-Davies was born in 1922 in Vancouver, Canada but spent most of his life in the Arab world. “I then came to Egypt, or my father came to Egypt—I had no choice in the matter,” he recounts. From Egypt to Sudan and from Sudan to Uganda and Kenya. He traveled to England for the first time at the age of 12. 


The most recognized name in Arabic literary translation, having published 28 volumes of short stories, novels and poems, Johnson-Davies was the first to introduce the works of Arab writers to the English-speaking world. He was also the first to translate Naguib Mahfouz, selecting a short story by the man who became a Nobel laureate in 1988. 


“I never thought of myself as a translator, it was something I did,” he says now. “I’ve never made a living out of translation. I may be well known for it, but it is a very badly paid profession, so I’ve done all sorts of things.”


His fascination with Arab culture has spanned more than six decades, and he’s rubbed elbows with heads of state, writers and intellectuals. Living in Cairo, Iran, Beirut and the Gulf, Johnson-Davies has served as a lecturer in English at Fouad Al-Awwal University (later Cairo University), an oil company representative, a lawyer, businessman and director of an Arabic broadcasting station.


Between 1949 and 1950, Johnson-Davies took up work for an American oil company in Qatar, which was exploring for oil under the seabed. They wanted a local representative who could deal with the ruler, Sheikh Ali bin Abdallah, in Arabic. “There was no electricity, there were no roads. When you compare it to what is happening today in Qatar, it is a miracle, and the miracle is called oil,” he smiles. 


Despite his interest in languages, Johnson-Davies never enjoyed studying Latin and Greek in school. Instead, he chose, at age 14, to study Arabic. As a child growing up in Wadi Halfa with Sudanese children, he had spoken fluent Arabic, but forgot every word by his teenage years. He went on to attend London’s School of Oriental Studies before going on to Cambridge. When he took up Arabic, it never occurred to him what sort of career he would pursue with it. 


After Cambridge, he went to work for the BBC Arabic section, where he served throughout the Second World War. Apart from the 20-odd staff of Arab broadcasters and translators, no one in the Arabic section of the BBC had more than a basic command of the language. He roomed with the Arab employees, which he credits as being a sort of university, as he practiced written and spoken Arabic with native speakers.


He returned to Cairo in 1945, immediately after the war. “Cairo was a wonderful place then. There were only a million and a half people,” reminisces Johnson-Davies. “It was just the time when littérateurs like Tawfik Al-Hakim, Yahya Hakki, Mahmoud Taymour and Naguib Mahfouz were emerging.” He got to know them all and felt that among so-called Orientalists, no one was taking any interest in what he terms “the renaissance in modern Arabic literature.” 


In cafés and writers’ forums, Johnson-Davies joined the raging debate over the finer points of literary style. “I am a supporter of the use of the colloquial language,” he explains. “I just feel that if you are a writer of fiction, you want to employ every weapon at your disposal. You’ve got two languages in Egypt, and a very expressive language in the colloquial language. Why not use it?”


Classical Arabic is hardly a language for humor, or so Johnson-Davies would maintain, asking, “Do you know a good joke in classical Arabic?” 


Al-Hakim, Hakki and Yusuf Idris all used colloquial prose in their writing. Mahfouz is an exception, using classical Arabic even in dialogue. “I used to argue this question with Naguib Mahfouz. One hesitates to say that a man like Naguib Mahfouz is wrong. I said to him before he was a Nobel Prize winner that I thought he was wrong—and I still think he is wrong,” contends Johnson-Davies. “In my opinion, I think it is just ludicrous to have everybody speaking the same language. They don’t. You show a person’s character and background through the way he speaks.” 


Mahfouz was famously unconvinced, arguing that the classical language is what Arabs read. Writing in the colloquial would make the literary work inaccessible to readers not familiar with the Egyptian dialect.


Early on, Johnson-Davies translated short stories, which were published in periodicals such as the Egyptian Gazette or broadcast on the English program of Radio Cairo. At his own expense, in 1947 he self-published, under the imprint aptly called Renaissance Bookshop, 800–1,000 copies of a book of short stories by Mahmoud Taymour, a pioneer Arab writer in the genre, with an introduction by Abdel Rahman Azzam, the secretary-general of the Arab League at that time. It was perhaps the first volume of Arabic short stories to be published in translation. It did not sell particularly well, but Taymour was a moneyed man who came from an aristocratic family, and when Johnson-Davies gave him a copy of the published book, he paid him back the LE 200 or so the translator had spent printing it. 


Next, Johnson-Davies considered publishing a volume of works from across the Arab world but had a hard time finding a publisher. “They are terrible cowards,” he grouses. “‘Arab writing? There ain’t such a thing!’ For them, it was the Arabian Nights and that was it.” 


It was only by contacting somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody that he got through to Oxford University Press which, much to his surprise, agreed to publish a book of short stories translated from the Arabic. Their one condition was that a big-name academic write an introduction. Johnson-Davies got in touch with Arthur J. Arberry, a scholar in Arabic and Persian studies who also translated the Holy Qur’an. Although ill at the time, Arberry, who acknowledged that he knew little about Arabic literature, agreed to write the introduction. Entitled Modern Arabic Short Stories, the book came out in a disappointing year—1967. 


It hardly sold and received scant notice in the English press. 


Still, Johnson-Davies’ motivation was to bring Arabic writing to a wider audience. “I said, ‘Let’s try to find a way of getting past the prejudice of Western publishers who did not want anything to do with Arabic.’” Johnson-Davies translated about a third of Mahfouz’s Zuqaq Al-Midaqq (Midaq Alley) in the late 1940s, but put it away in a drawer because he knew he would not find a publisher. It took the Nobel Prize for anyone to realize the value of Arabic literature, and especially the works of Mahfouz, notes Johnson-Davies. 


“You’ve got to realize that readers on the whole are not all that interested in literature with a capital L,” he says. To give an example, in the early 1970s the literary editor of the Sunday Times selected Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North as the year’s best novel. Johnson-Davies walked into one of London’s leading bookshops and asked for a copy of the book by the Sudanese writer, which he had translated. The bookseller told him, “Oh, you’ll find it in the basement.” 


The bookstore did not stock the book, even in the cellar.


“The big commercial presses still want either fairly traditional narratives or somewhat sensational works which may not be the greatest literature. This, in turn, shapes what audiences think contemporary Arabic literature is,” remarks Marilyn Booth, professor of comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois.


“There is more audience for the translated Arabic literature around the world with an increasing ‘curiosity’ to know more about Arabs and Muslims,” explains Baria Ahmar, who translated two novels by Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi. “They are, of course, confused between what they read in these novels and what they read in their morning paper. It is a different picture.” 


“Literature has a way of explaining how a civilization and a culture operate on a different level than television or the news,” adds Anthony Calderbank, who has translated novels by Sonallah Ibrahim, Miral al-Tahawy and Naguib Mahfouz.


Johnson-Davies has been very much against the academic approach of many Arabists and Orientalists in translating literature. He works to preserve the literary style in translation and neither adds to the original nor omits from it. “You will not find notes in my translations,” he says simply. “If something has to be explained, I endeavor to incorporate it into the narrative itself. It just seems to me that what one wants to do now is to make Arabic literature as acceptable and easy as possible for the average English reader and not storm him with all sorts of academic knowledge you may possess—and which he does not really need.” 


For a while, Johnson-Davies was the only one translating the work of Arab writers into English but, after all, a translator cannot translate everyone. “I’ve had the difficulty of writers saying, ‘Why do you translate Fulan [the Arabic equivalent of “Smith”] and not me? Am I less good?’ The answer is there is very little to be gained in writing in Arabic unless you get translated.” 


Arabic literature is limited even for the Arab audience. Egypt, although having produced the Arab world’s most prominent writers, has not really developed a reading culture. “Being an Arab novelist is a rather thankless task,” adds Johnson-Davies. “A friend of mine, Mohamed El-Bisatie, gets paid like LE 400 for a novel when it is published. But many of these people are paying money to these publishers to get published, which says a lot about the literary situation in the Arab world.”


Literary phenomena such as dentist-turned-novelist Alaa Al Aswany, whose book Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building) was an international best seller in Arabic before being translated into English, are few and far between. 


Johnson-Davies was well aware that he could put writers on the world literary map. “But it was it was not a power that I wanted, really. As I say, you can only translate so much. I feel like I’ve done my bit,” he says. “If one is doing work, which is really quite hard and for which you are not really going to get paid, one wants to translate something that one enjoys. And there is a lot of good literature around which maybe one doesn’t enjoy.” 


In the words of Peter Clark, a writer and translator, “Translating is far more than a competence in two languages. The translator has to take possession of—or be possessed by—the work undertaken.”


Johnson-Davies never worried about whether an author was well known or not and has instead been on the lookout for new writers, including women. “I am interested in the short story and I also feel that when you are dealing with the short story you are giving a lot of people the chance to be known.”


He translated Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1966 novella Tilk Al-Ra’iha (The Smell of It) by the iconoclastic but then-unknown writer soon after it was censored in Egypt. The story of a man’s release from prison and the alienation he faces, Tilk Al-Ra’iha features shocking descriptions of homosexuality, prostitution and masturbation. “It had just been banned and somebody brought a copy to me in Beirut. I thought it was a very good novel,” says Johnson-Davies. “I think Sonallah was disappointed that I never translated anything else by him. The reason is that he became very much a political novelist and I am not interested in politics.” 


Johnson-Davies returned to London, where he stayed from 1954 to 1969, but could not find a job working in Arabic. Instead, he became a barrister, practicing specialized equity law. 


“It is a question of akl aish [daily bread], as they say,” confiding that he was never happy attired in his wig and gown, “It bored me to tears.” He later gave up law and set up an office specializing in Arabic translation. Clients hired him to translate in negotiations for contracts, especially in Saudi Arabia. He started the Arab Authors series with Heinemann, a small publishing house in London, which published some 24 paperback editions of translations from Arabic. He also began a quarterly literary magazine called Aswat (Voices), which lasted all of 12 issues.


In 1969, Johnson-Davies left London for Dubai, where he became director of Sawt Al-Sahil, the Arabic broadcasting station for the Emirates, which was then under British control. When the British left, Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Rashid, offered Johnson-Davies the job of heading the state broadcasting, but he turned it down. “I said, ‘Here you are, an independent Arab country—what do you want an Englishman for?’” Had he stayed, he concedes without the slightest hint of regret, he would have been a very rich man.


In addition to his translations, Johnson-Davies also authors children’s books. His latest two are due out soon from Dar Al-Shorouk, Egypt’s leading publisher, which has made a foray into foreign-language children’s books. They are about Amr Ibn Al-As, the commander of the Muslim army that conquered Egypt, and Saladin, the Kurdish general who established the Ayyubid Dynasty in Egypt. 


His first book for children was about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The idea came about when he was chatting with a wealthy Syrian friend at his vacation home in the south of Spain. The man’s young son passed by, and his father called the boy over and asked him what he knew about the Battle of Badr. Aghast, the child said he knew nothing. His father then asked what he knew about Omar ibn Al-Khattab. Again, the boy drew a blank. The father turned to Johnson-Davies and said, “As you can see, my son, who goes to an English public school, knows nothing about his religion. What about writing a book about the Prophet for children?” 


He wrote Johnson-Davies a check on the spot.


“I looked at this very handsome check and went away to write this book about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) for children and just couldn’t get started,” he recalls. “I was within an ace of sitting down and writing another check back to him giving him back the money.” He persisted, and the book finally came out.


Since then, he has written dozens of books for children, including three about the endearingly ‘wise fool’ Goha of Arabic lore and other stories derived from fables, folktales and the oral tradition of the Arab world. He possesses a fondness for animals, and they too are the subject of his children’s books. 


“I am not very keen on children, actually,” Johnson-Davies freely continues, saying that he wasn’t a particularly good father to his only son because he was away so often. 


These days, Johnson-Davies is still involved in literary projects. He has compiled an anthology of modern Arabic literature, forthcoming from Random House. In Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature (due out in February from the American University in Cairo Press), Johnson-Davies reflects on the landscape and people of contemporary Arab literature in an autobiographical sketch of his life in translation.


And as if this were not enough, Johnson-Davies, with Ezzeddin Ibrahim, an Islamic scholar and cultural adviser to the president of the United Arab Emirates, translated three volumes of hadith literature. They are currently working on a translation of the Qur’an. “It is a Qur’an under subject matter, which is something that really hasn’t been done,” explains Johnson-Davies, saying that translating the Holy Book is a daunting task.


“I would like to do one more book of short stories,” he contemplates. “If I could [convince] Oxford University Press to do it, I would be happy to have the very first one done by them and the very last one done by them.” 


Or perhaps another two—just to round off his number of translated volumes to 30. 

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