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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir / translation

Memories in Translation

Denys Johnson-Davies

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To purchase Memories in Translation

Title: Memories in Translation
Author: Denys Johnson-Davies
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2006
Length: 131 pages
Availability: Memories in Translation - US
Memories in Translation - UK
Memories in Translation - Canada
  • A Life Between the Lines Of Arabic Literature
  • With a foreword by Naguib Mahfouz
  • With numerous photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable, and a decent introduction to the Arabic literary scene

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Memories in Translation is a very casual memoir, focussed mainly on Johnson-Davies' work as a translator of Arabic literature -- a small (though very significant) part of what appears to have been a very unusual life. Johnson-Davies begins by recounting how he came to study Arabic -- an unlikely chain of events that included leaving boarding school at age fourteen because they wouldn't let him play squash. And Arabic was an odd choice for someone who wasn't particularly fond of Latin and Greek, but that's what he wound up studying at Cambridge.
       He had spent his childhood "in Cairo, then in Wadi Halfa in Sudan, and finally in Uganda and Kenya" before coming to England at age twelve, and he was never particularly comfortable there, preferring to return to the Middle East whenever possible. He joined the BBC, which was apparently in desperate need of anyone with the faintest familiarity with Arabic -- indeed, his talents (limited though they still were at the time) were enough to get him exempted from military service in World War II. He got a scholarship at the School of Oriental Studies, but the possibility of an academic career was derailed in quite spectacular fashion (which was all for the best, he thinks).
       Johnson-Davies led a rather peripatetic life. After World War II he was thrilled to leave the BBC and head for Cairo, teaching at Fouad al-Awwal University (now Cairo U.) for two years. (Johnson-Davies doesn't mention him, but he must have been there at the same time as D.J.Enright, whose novel Academic Year recounts the experience.) But Johnson-Davies didn't really settle down: he took a variety of other jobs, and even practiced at the bar -- though: "I was never happy in a wig and gown" is about as much as he has to say about those years. What always did appeal to him was the literary scene, and starting with a self-published translation of a collection of stories by Mahmoud Teymour in 1947 -- "I believe, the first volume of Arabic short stories to be published in English translation" -- he would go on to translate some thirty volumes of Arabic literature.
       It is this that the memoir focusses on, as Johnson-Davies recounts his translation-related experiences, the authors he knew, as well as commenting more generally on some of the difficulties faced by Arabic writers (both in the Arab-speaking world, and in the English-speaking world). He knew several of the most important authors personally, and is, of course, very well read in all 20th century Arabic literature, and his accounts and descriptions make Memories in Translation a useful introduction to modern Arabic literature. Casual and anecdotal, Johnson-Davies' book doesn't overwhelm readers with names and facts, but he does give a very good sense of some of these writers (and a bit of their work) -- it is, truly, introductory.
       There are some interesting titbits, such as when he was approached regarding potential Arabic candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature (besides Mahfouz, who would eventually take the prize, Adonis, Salih, and Yusuf Idris were apparently in the running). And Johnson-Davies offers a fill of entertaining small stories throughout.
       There are also some observations about Arabic writing more generally, and the difficulty of getting it published in translation, such as:

Perhaps what modern Arabic writing lacks, at least for it to become more widely read in the west, is a sense of it belonging to a larger whole. Most Arabs writing today have not lived abroad and generally do not know a foreign language, so that their writing tends to be enclosed.
       He also notes:
     Today the lot of the writer in Egypt, for instance, is dire. The money he or she can make from a book would not pay for the typing of it, and even established writers are now actually paying publishers to have their work appear in print.
       (As he notes, getting translated is thus an incredible boon for any author who is so lucky .....)
       Memories in Translation is an accessible, enjoyable, and informative read; if anything, it leaves one wishing for more. Johnson-Davies remains a somewhat enigmatic figure who seems to have led a very interesting life (much of which is barely hinted at here), and he probably has a lot more (of considerable interest) to say about translation and Arabic literature as well. As a quick introductory text for anyone interested in Arabic literature (and for a glimpse of a very interesting character) it can certainly be recommended.

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Memories in Translation: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Denys Johnson-Davies is the leading translator of Arabic literature into English.

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© 2006-2009 the complete review

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