Remembering Denys Johnson-Davies


Pioneering translator of Arabic literature Denys Johnson-Davies, and friend of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, died in Egypt on May 22, aged 94.

Throughout his seven decade career Denys contributed enormously to raising the profile of Arabic literature in translation. Born in Vancouver, Canada in 1922, Denys spent his childhood in Cairo, Uganda and Sudan before moving to England aged 12. He studied Arabic at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge before beginning a five year period working for the Arabic section for the BBC. It was during this period that he completed his first volume of translation, a collection of stories by Mahmud Teymour.

Denys had a varied and fascinating career, including founding the Arabic literary magazine, Aswat, in the early 1960s, practising as a successful barrister, running a local Arabic language radio station in what were then the Trucial states, and working as an interpreter in Dubai during the negotiations between local rulers and British officials that led to the creation of the United Arab Emirates. Throughout these years he remained committed to translating and promoting Arabic literature.

Denys was the first English language translator of Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, as well as many other authors, including Tewfiq al-Hakim, Yaha Taher Abdullah, Mohamed El-Bisatie, Sonallah Ibrahim, Taha Hussein, Yusuf Idris, Mohammed Berrada, Salwa Bakr, and Zakaria Tamer. He is also the translator of Mohammed El-Bisatie’s Hunger, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009. In 2007 Denys was awarded the Sheikh Zayed book award as cultural personality of the year.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and all those invested in promoting Arabic literature to the wider world, mourn the loss of this great man.