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Humphrey Davies, Noted Translator of Arabic Literature, Dies at 74

Humphrey Davies, an award-winning translator into English of some of the most important and renowned works of contemporary Arabic literature, including novels by the Egyptian Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz and the prominent Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, died on Nov. 12 at a hospital in London. He was 74.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, his daughter, Clare Davies, said.

Mr. Davies was a key figure in introducing contemporary Middle Eastern writers to an English language audience, rendering their prose into English with crisp and precise translations rich in nuance and sensitivity to the original. He displayed remarkable breadth, translating nonfiction and medieval works as well.

Mr. Davies translated more than 30 books from Arabic, among them novels by Mr. Khoury, including “Gate of the Sun” (1998; translated in 2005) and “Yalo” (2002; translated in 2009), each of which won him the prestigious Banipal Arabic Literary Translation award. His 2018 translation of Mr. Khoury’s “My Name is Adam” (2016) brought him the English PEN Translates award.

He also translated works by the Egyptian novelists Alaa Al Aswany and Mohamed Mustagab, along with “Thebes at War” (1944, translated in 2003) a classic of contemporary Arabic literature by Mr. Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 2008, the British Society of Authors honored Mr. Davies’ 2004 translation of Mr. Al Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building” as one of the 50 most outstanding translations of the previous 50 years.

An uncompromising portrait of life in Cairo, that novel dissects the psychological and sexual adventures of the residents in a single building. Mr. Davies, who lived in Cairo several times throughout his life, including the last 27 years, drew upon his intimate knowledge of the city in writing the introduction.

He noted that the Yacoubian Building actually exists but that its literary description did not exactly match the real thing. “Rather than being in ‘the high European style’ and boasting ‘balconies decorated with Greek faces carved from stone,’” he wrote, “it is a restrained yet albeit elegant exercise in Art Deco, innocent of balconies.”

Mr. Davies translated more than 30 books from Arabic, among them novels by Elias Khoury, including “Gate of the Sun” (1998). His 2005 translation of it brought him a coveted Banipal Arabic Literary Translation prize.Credit…Archipelago Books

Few Arabic novels were available in English until the mid-1950s. Mr. Mahfouz’s Nobel victory raised their profile, and the terrorists’ attacks of 9/11 spurred further interest in Arabic texts.

That day was a turning point, Mr. Davies said in a video interview in 2011 with the literary figure André Naffis-Sahely, when “the West as a whole — whatever that means — sort of woke up to the fact that they wanted to know, understand better, what happens in the Arab world and that literature is a route to doing that.”

The burden of introducing Arabic works to English readers “falls mainly on devoted translators, and on the small and heroic presses that have performed this service from the start,” Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker in 2010.

One of those publishing houses, Archipelago Books, published Mr. Davies’ translations of four Khoury novels. “We have lost not only a remarkable translator but also a passionate advocate for Arabic literature,” Jill Schoolman, Archipelago’s founder and publisher, said in an email.

When the Banipal prize committee named his 2011 translation of “I Was Born There, I Was Born Here” (2009), by Mourid Barghouti, as a runner-up for the award, it said of Mr. Davies: “He manages a rare thing — to make you feel you are reading the book in the language in which it was written.”

Humphrey Taman Davies was born on April 6, 1947, in London. His father, John Howard Davies, was a music librarian for the BBC, and his mother, Phyllis Theresa Mabel (Corbett) Davies, was a local librarian. He graduated from the University College School, London, in 1964 and received a degree in Arabic Studies from Jesus College, Cambridge University, in 1968.

Mr. Davies spent the next year at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Arabic Studies Abroad. He worked in publishing in the Middle East for several years after that, including a stint helping to prepare a dictionary of Egyptian Arabic. He married Kristina Nelson, an ethnomusicologist who worked alongside him on the dictionary, in 1975, and they had two children. (The couple divorced in 2002.)

The family eventually headed to the United States, where Mr. Davies received a Ph.D. from the department of Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981.

He spent 1983 to 1997 working with humanitarian foundations in the Middle East, including Save the Children in Tunisia and the Ford Foundation in Khartoum, Sudan, and in Egypt, to which the family relocated in 1994.

Mr. Davies was inspired to take up translation of modern Arabic literature in the early 2000s by the works of a friend, the Egyptian actor and storyteller Sayed Ragab. His first published translation was of Ragab’s short story “Rat,” which appeared in 2002 in Banipal, a United Kingdom-based magazine of modern Arabic literature; its parent company hands out the Banipal awards.

Soon after, the American University in Cairo Press hired him to translate the first of two novels by Mr. Mahfouz. After the success of his work on Mr. Al Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building,” requests for his services began pouring in. “I’m never at a loss for people wanting to translate books,” he said in the 2011 interview.

In addition to his daughter Clare, Mr. Davies is also survived by his son, James Taman Davies; a brother, Hugh; and his longtime partner, Gassim Hassan.

Mr. Davies remained devoted to his beloved Cairo even when many foreigners were leaving Egypt amid the unrest surrounding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Having lived in Egypt for so long, he said in the video interview, it would have been impossible to pull himself away.

He turned his appreciation of the city into a book, “A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo” (2018, with Lesley Lababidi).

Mr. Davies turned his love of Cairo into a book. He spent the last 27 years of his life there. 

Mr. Davies offered his own rules for translating. No. 1 was “only translate what you like,” he told the online publication ArabLit.org. He said translators should “make three drafts, wait a month, and make a fourth.”

Above all, he placed great importance on arriving at the author’s intent. For “Gate of the Sun,” he once subjected Mr. Khoury to a nine-hour interrogation, he said in a talk after winning the Banipal award in 2010.

“To date, I have been fortunate enough to be able to consult almost all the living authors whose works I have translated,” he said, adding, “I have questions for the dead, too, when I meet them.”

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