Remembering Denys Johnson-Davies (1922–2017) one year on!

The name of Denys Johnson-Davies was well known to me long before we met: in my early days in Egypt, of the few works of Arabic literature available in English translation, many bore that resonant name on their title page, below that of the author. So when he first came to the offices of the AUC Press in the late 1980s to discuss the publication of a new translation, I was meeting a celebrity. His trademark swept-back mane of ivory hair was matched, as usual in those days, by ivory linen trousers, a white cotton shirt, and perhaps a light cream summer jacket—an image, abetted by his aristocratic vowels, that tricked you into thinking: the Englishman abroad. But he was no colonial type. He had mastered both Classical and Colloquial Arabic, loved Arab life and culture, and counted many of the Arab world’s greatest writers as his close friends. The Muslim Brothers could tell the difference: when Denys was an unintended casualty of a bomb they had planted on a Cairo street, they brought flowers to his hospital bedside to apologize.

The first manuscript I remember working on with Denys was his translation of Mohamed El-Bisatie’s short story collection A Last Glass of Tea, and over the years there were many more. His early manuscripts were typewritten on onionskin paper, which he then amended heavily in his elegant but often barely decipherable handwriting in black fountain-pen. These pages were then given to the Press’s typesetter, who had a miraculous gift for correctly untangling challenging handwriting and accurately interpreting lines drawn through and across the text and into the margins (and sometimes onto the back of the sheet) that indicated deletions, insertions, or replacements of all kinds. The resulting clean printout was then my starting point, as I marked my editorial changes in blue in my own much less elegant and even more indecipherable hand. Denys would review my edits, and we would both add further scribbles and lines before asking the typesetter to make the changes to the file.

Through this process (later refined by the introduction of word processors and then computers), we developed a comfortable and productive translator–editor relationship, as I began to understand and admire what Denys always insisted was the art (not science) of translation, and as he came to appreciate the art (likewise) of copyediting. Our work together, which often involved looking back at parts of the original Arabic text in order to smooth out passages in the English, led at some point to Denys suggesting I try my own hand at translating a novel. This had never occurred to me but Denys was persuasive, and it was only due to his continued kind encouragement and support that my first translation was published in 1998.



In his study going through his archive                                         Reading the local newspaper





With translator Humphrey Davies                                                With friend and writer Mohamed Al Maghzanghi


The list of writers introduced to us in English by Denys Johnson-Davies reads like a Who’s Who of Arabic literature from the forties to the noughties. This unrivaled contribution to the global path of Arabic writing was showcased in his last AUC Press publication, the justly celebratory volume Homecoming, which brought together a wide-ranging collection of Egyptian short stories he had translated over an astonishing span of sixty years. Working with Denys on this manuscript was rewarding, enlightening, and fun—as it had been on the first one, so many years before, and on all the others in between. What a privilege to have known this extraordinary man, not only as a translator but as a mentor and a friend, for the best part of three decades.

—By Neil Hewison, translator and former AUC Press associate director for editorial programs

All photographs of Denys Johnson-Davies reproduced by kind permission of Paola Crociani and Neil Hewison.


May 10, 2018


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