An interview with Neil Hewison

Tarek Ghanem, AUC Press commissioning editor, sat down with Neil Hewison, the Press’s former associate director for editorial programs, to talk about publishing in the Middle East, Arabic fiction in translation, advice to young authors, and serendipity. Hewison retired late last year after thirty-one years at the Press as an editor and translator.

TG: You were born in Yorkshire and raised in Northern Britain, then studied linguistics, Swahili, and German. You also worked as a teacher previously. How did you end up where you are now? In other words, can you tell us your story!

NH: Yes! When I graduated from university in England, I wanted to be a volunteer English teacher with Voluntary Service Overseas, and because I’d studied Swahili as you mentioned, the expectation was that I’d be sent to east Africa. But VSO decided I would be better placed in Egypt, so the organization sent me to Egypt. I didn’t choose to come here, but it was a very happy coincidence that I did, because as soon as I arrived I felt very much at home here. So I was sent to teach English for two years in Fayoum at a branch of Cairo University. I spent a third year there and then I moved to Cairo and taught English for a while in a private language institute in Heliopolis.

TG: And what’s your story with the AUC Press? How did you end up being part of the Press?

NH: Well, again, it was a coincidence because being sent to teach English in Fayoum is what started it. The AUC Press director at the time, in 1982, John Rodenbeck, wanted to publish a guidebook on the Fayoum, and I was one of only four foreigners known to be living in Fayoum. They thought I could write, so they asked me to write a guidebook to Fayoum; this was my introduction to the AUC Press. That book was published in 1984—the first edition. It went through several other editions but that was my introduction to the Press. I met my predecessor then, who was managing editor at the time, Lesley Tweddle. When she came to want go back to her original job in the AUC library (she’d been seconded to the Press originally), she asked me if I wanted to apply for the job. And this was all on the basis of having written the Fayoum book and having done a bit of freelance editing for her before that. I knew, at that time, very little about the publishing world and I jumped at the chance. It was a good change of career for me. I was getting very tired of teaching English and I thought, “Publishing sounds interesting, why not take the chance?” so I got into it then and I joined the Press in 1986.

TG: So it was accidental?

NH: Yes, it was serendipity.

TG: 1988, the year Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature, represents an important moment in your career and in the course of Arabic literature in translation, as well as in the cultural conversation about the Middle East. Can you tell us what led to that moment and how things have changed since then?

NH: Well, for quite some time before then, Naguib Mahfouz had been recognized as one of the writers of Egypt; he was well read, well published in Egypt. The AUC Press had already published nine translations of his novels before the Nobel Prize was announced in 1988. Some novels had been translated into French as well, and maybe one or two into German, but the books that were out there that were available for the Nobel committee to read were our books in English and the few books in French. I don’t think anybody on the Nobel committee was reading the original Arabic. So it was partly thanks to the AUC Press that he got the Nobel Prize. It had been anticipated, by the way, by the previous director of the Press whom I mentioned earlier, John Rodenbeck.

Sometime in the late seventies, he wrote a letter which I later came across in the files when I was digging through for something else, where he was writing to somebody and saying, “One day Naguib Mahfouz will win the Nobel prize, and so the AUC Press must forge ahead and translate his works.” So he was visionary in the first place. Then we continued to publish his books very slowly, one every couple of years or so up until 1988. When the news came through, it was quite stunning of course. We suddenly found we had a Nobel Prize winner on our list; there was a lot to do. We had to very quickly arrange all sorts of publicity and information for the world, which was anxious to know more about this writer from Egypt. And there was a huge demand for his books, so we had to very quickly reprint all the books that we already had in print, in large numbers, and then to prepare for translating more of his novels, which we did in partnership with the New York publisher Doubleday.

At the time, it was quite difficult for us to supply that very sudden demand for his work around the world, which is why we went into partnership with a larger publisher from New York. For the first ten years or so it worked that way. So this was a massive boost for Arabic literature, first of all in the form of Naguib Mahfouz himself, and then by association with other Arabic writing. The world suddenly realized that there was a literary world coming out of Egypt and the Arab countries that had not been internationally recognized before, so this was our impetus to go ahead and translate more, and a wider range of Arabic literature into English. At the same time, the AUC Press was the world literary agent for Naguib Mahfouz, from an agreement dating back to 1985, three years before the Nobel Prize, whereby we were able to promote and sell the rights to his works in other languages around the world. Through our agency there’s something like 600 editions of Mahfouz works in forty languages around the world, possibly more by now.


TG: Continuing on the theme of literature, you’ve
translated two prize-winning novels into English
and you were involved in many efforts and decisions
to promote Arabic literature in translation. Can you tell us about your own personal relationship with Arabic
literature? What do you see as special about Arabic
literature, in your opinion?

NH: Well of course I got involved in it following the Nobel Prize for Naguib Mahfouz, because I then
found myself editing translations of books by Naguib Mahfouz as well as books by other writers being translated by people like Denys Johnson-Davies, the great pioneer translator of Arabic literature into English. And working closely with someone like Denys on his translations, I then became very interested in the process of translation and the literature itself and how it was written—the language and the different styles of Arabic that can be used in writing literature and fiction. I became very interested and one day Denys said to me, “Well why don’t you translate a book of Arabic?,” which had never occurred to me, actually, and I thought, “Yes why not?” So even the first book that I translated was Denys’s suggestion. It was a novel by Yusuf Idris, which we then published by AUC Press under the title City of Love and Ashes. It’s a fine novel. Yusuf Idris is much better known for his short stories but he did write several novels and this is one of them and it’s a very good one. It’s set in the early months of 1952, when the feelings of revolution were beginning to stir. There are fedayeen fighting against the British army in the Suez Canal zone, and it’s a love story set in that time between a revolutionary and a young woman who wants to help out with the revolutionary cause. But it’s also a love story, effectively, of the people, the essential characters of the book, and the city of Cairo, which becomes a third main character. And so it’s about love for Cairo and love for Egypt as well as love between a man and a woman.

TG: One can tell that you have a very clear and precise approach to translation. Some translators like to domesticate foreign references and cultural particularities; others like to keep them foreignized, to give a voice to what’s foreign. Can you tell us about your approach to translation? What do you think the job of a good translator should be?

NH: I think the translator should generally be as invisible as possible. The translator’s essential job is to produce a text which puts across the original writer’s message, ideas, formulation, and expression as efficiently as possible but in comfortable language which the English reader doesn’t stumble on. I’ve heard arguments for the idea of what you call ‘foreignization’ or ‘alienization.’ I don’t see the point, frankly, in deliberately trying to trip readers up by making something seem more foreign than it needs to be or to be constantly reminding the reader that they’re reading a translation. I think there’s nothing wrong, of course, with including foreign cultural concepts—even foreign words within the text if it’s a natural part of the surroundings of the novel—but not to just try to make life difficult for the reader. The reading experience has to be a comfortable one, where the reader feels they’re reading an original novel written in English even if it’s in a foreign setting, but not to be reminded constantly that it’s a translation.

TG: You’ve worked for AUC Press for more than three decades; can you gauge what kind of impact the AUC Press has made in publishing and presenting the Middle East in English?

NH: I think the AUC Press has played a significant role in the last twenty to thirty years in getting information about the Middle East—many aspects of its life, culture, history, and so on—out to the wider world. And especially recently we’ve been able to expand our worldwide distribution much more into North America and Europe, and around the world. When I first joined the Press in 1986 it was probably true to say that almost all our sales were within Egypt. We have since managed to push out and to begin a much wider export of books and this is one of the primary roles of the AUC Press—to give people a good picture of the Middle East from the Middle East. The scholars, the writers, the authors of our books can be from anywhere in the world—we have many Egyptian authors, many British, American, and also European authors. The point is that they are all writing with knowledge of the Middle East from the Middle East based on solid research. And it’s very important to, as much as possible, counter misinformation that’s floating around the world, whether it’s about Egypt or about other countries in the Middle East, or the politics or history of the Middle East. So I think this is the main mission of the AUC Press and I think we’ve played a reasonable part in actually doing that, even more so today as we expand our worldwide distribution.

TG: On this point, and speaking as a fellow but much less experienced editor, what would be your answer to the following: Why should an author publish with AUC Press?

NH: Well, we have a range of interests and fields that we publish in, and so a) if you’ve written something in this field and b) if it’s in relation to Egypt or the Middle East then yes, we should be at the top of your list for publishing it. Being situated right here in the heart of Cairo makes us very well placed to publish books on the history, politics, economics, and archaeology of Egypt and the Middle East. The same is true for Arabic language learning books, which we can export to the world. So we’re here and we know what we’re doing, and we’re one of the best publishers on the Middle East for the world.

TG: Having worked for so long as an editor, do you have any words of advice for aspiring editors?

NH: An editor, like a translator, should be invisible. A good job of editing should not be noticed by a reader; a bad job of editing will always be noticed by a reader. It’s a matter of being clear and consistent and helping the author get their message across in the clearest possible manner, but not interfering in the author’s voice. The author must always retain their own voice. Starting out in editing there’s a temptation sometimes to think that you know how to write this sentence or express that idea better than the author does. You have to step back from that temptation—not try and rewrite but just massage the language a little and help out on a small scale with the primary objective of getting the ideas across clearly; to be, as I say in the end, invisible. The editor is a conduit between the writer and the reader but that conduit should not be obvious, and so the writer gets the credit in the reader’s eyes for what they’re reading.

TG: AUC Press launched a new imprint, Hoopoe. Can you tell us a little bit about what Hoopoe aims to achieve and what contribution it hopes to bring to the world of Arabic fiction in translation and the wider conversation about the Arab world?

NH: Hoopoe was set up specifically to carry our fiction list because, having expanded the list over the previous twenty years or so to cover a wide range of writers from across the Arab world, we were beginning to feel that we weren’t reaching a very wide readership. Our books were being studied in universities, and people were picking up our books in order to learn something about the Middle East, but we wanted to take the books out of the academic closet and put them onto a shelf where people would read them for their own sake as good books, good novels, rather than worthy books to read and learn from. So the idea was to set up a separate imprint called Hoopoe which is specially for fiction. This means that we are able to distribute the books to a much wider range of stores around the world that deal specially with fiction. The university name is not very apparent on the books, so they don’t look like scholarly books as they perhaps used to, and I think we’ve now achieved our aim of reaching a wider readership. We’ve certainly had a much wider range of reviews in the press in the US and the UK, and sales in general of our novels have gone up too. So it’s a good way of representing the fiction to a wider audience and reaching a wider audience.

TG: You talked earlier about how accidental your coming to Egypt was, that you didn’t plan this. You’ve seen a lot happen in Egypt, especially since 2011, and you’ve lived here for most of your life. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship to Egypt, your feelings about it, and also how your life in Egypt has changed through the years?

NH: Well, I came as a volunteer English teacher and I was living in Fayoum for the first three years rather than in Cairo. Cairo to me was a big city which I preferred to stay away from as much as possible. I stayed in Fayoum and only came
up to Cairo when I had to for business or to renew a visa or whatever. Of course, when I first came in 1979, Anwar Sadat
was still president, and then I lived through the entire Mubarak period and then through the revolution and then into the post-revolution period. It’s all been very interesting, of course, all along, and very dramatic at times. Egypt very quickly for me began to feel like home even after quite a short time here, as I began to learn to speak Arabic and began to understand the ways, the customs, and the traditions, a little bit, of people, especially in quite a conservative, rural environment like Fayoum, a small town. It just felt very comfortable to me, and so each time I’ve thought about leaving it just doesn’t seem possible somehow. This is home to me now, far more than England is, where I came from, because I’ve lived longer here in Egypt now than I’ve lived anywhere else. And I hope to continue living here for quite some time to come.

TG: What are your plans after retirement?

NH: I will slow down a little but not too much. I have quite a few projects to work on. I hope to continue my association with the AUC Press in some form or other, whether it’s helping out now and then with a freelance project or a consultancy here or there, and just generally staying in touch because the AUC Press is part of me. It’s part of who I am, and I can’t just leave it behind, shut the door, and say goodbye, so I’ll continue that connection. I also have my own projects to do. I certainly want to do some more translation. I’ll look around for a suitable project when the time comes. I also want to go back to some of my photography projects, now that technology has advanced far enough to provide me with a scanner which will take my old black and white negatives. I can go to revisit some of the old photographs I took thirty, forty years ago and play around with those on the computer in the way that I used to play with them in the dark room in the old days of film, paper, and chemicals. So I might get back into that. And then just see what life brings. I’m not making very specific plans, because in the past, life has taken me round unexpected corners. So making firm plans doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

TG: I would like to thank you for lending your talents and competence to AUC Press and on behalf of my colleagues we really thank you for being such an amazing colleague and human being, and we wish you success with all your plans.

Well thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with all of you, and with your predecessors over the past thirty-one years. It’s been an enormous pleasure throughout.


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