Uncle Humph, Do Stay a While Longer

Absence | By Omid Shekari | 2021 | Acrylic on canvas

When I think of Humphrey Davies, I think of Uncle Humph. I call him uncle not out of a juvenile sense of biological attachment, but as belonging to that branch of the lineage of translators which I endeavor to be a part of. I write of Uncle Humph’s passing and find myself unwilling to acknowledge it. Unwilling and resentful. How could he suddenly up and leave us like this with no warning, when we needed him so much? When I agreed to Rana Issa’s offer to co-translate Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s travelogue three years ago, we both knew that we would be standing on the shoulders of the man who did the seemingly impossible by translating Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg. He was to be our reviewer and draft reader and we would not publish a word of it without his blessing, including excerpts that have been published so far, each word having been enriched by his feedback. For him to leave us so suddenly when we are still in the middle of producing our first draft is as cruel a blow as can be dealt, as we feel this project has lost its spiritual mentor. And yet we have no option but to continue. Shidyaq would not accept otherwise, and neither would Humphrey.

We translators are a strange lot. We reconstruct words, sentences, ideas and texts of someone else in another language into the language we think, and are content to have our names at the bottom of the cover or at the end of the electronic page in small print, as if our role  is a minor one, like the assistant director whose name everyone outside “the business” will struggle to remember. Humphrey taught me that it is worth it and that the task of the translator is not a thankless one, and that with enough dedication and passion, one can cease to be a minor detail. While he did not dismiss theorizing about translation, he always prioritized practice, and fearless practice at that, and showed me where my priorities should lie, which is to translate as much and as varied a corpus of material as possible first and reflect on the practice later. He was one of the rare breed of translators, who after earning a doctorate in Arabic literature which would have qualified him for a stable traditional academic life, chose to make the Arab world his home and never wavered from his determination to stay in it for the rest of his life. 

I first met Humphrey in 2008 while I was a student in the CASA program in Cairo, struggling with the stresses of living in Egypt on my own. Ever since we first sat at the Townhouse cafe together one balmy Thursday evening, a friendship was established that endured until the last time we spoke and a correspondence established that never waned for longer than a few months. At some point during our correspondence after I left Egypt, after replying with some advice I had solicited, he spontaneously signed off as “your dear uncle Humphrey” which then quickly became “Uncle Humph.” 

I think of Humphrey as the person to whom I once spontaneously wrote: I want to be like you when I grow up, and I meant what I said. His response was: “Your message imparts an exquisite fragrance to the start of the day,” which only confirmed my wish. That wish still holds true. I will not wax eloquent about Humphrey’s unmatched skill as a translator, for others will do that with much greater precision than I can. What I speak of is Humphrey the modest human being who from the very first day treated me as a peer even though I consider him a muʿallim, master-mentor who has mentored my translation career not as a stern taskmaster, but as the gentlest of guardian angels. 

Humphrey was one of the few who encouraged me to be a full-time translator when I decided I wanted to quit academia after my PhD, warning me that the worst that could happen was that I would not be eating fancy caviar regularly for dinner! I think of Humphrey’s beautiful emails full of wit and finesse that are a pleasure to read in and of themselves. I have deleted emails from others who have departed this life, just as I have deleted their phone numbers. For example: After my interview for the translator residency last year which I never got, he told me to let him know the outcome asap “because it’s really hard doing lots of things (putting on socks, eating) with one’s fingers crossed.” Or, when giving feedback on an excerpt from Shidyaq that we sent him:  “This needs a verb; a comma can’t strut onto the stage and claim it’s a verb, like a midget in a robe five sizes too large proclaiming ‘I am Hercules!’” I thought painfully of his dark humor when I checked up on him during the height of the lockdown, and he responded: “[T]here has to be a change sooner or later, with or without the virus. It can’t end with me being found in an empty flat along with the dead cockroaches and the dust...This is the challenge of our generation (so you thought you’d got away without fighting a World War, did you?! This will show you!).” There should be a special place in heaven for people in the generation of emoji texting who can casually write emails with such verbal treasures. 

It was this innate sense of ẓarf, or refined wit, that made Uncle Humph not just the most delightful of interlocutors but also the finest of translators, and would have made him at home in any majlis of the finest udabaʾ.

I think of Humphrey’s modesty and openness to learn new things. In the same email exchange during the lockdown, he went so far as to ask me if I could suggest an appropriate term to translate a slang Egyptian phrase for making homemade liquor for a novel he was translating. I suggested ‘hooch’ but never found out if he took my suggestion. This was Humphrey, someone who knew his stature and yet who never was too haughty or proud to ask someone younger than his own children for feedback if he felt they could offer it. This sense of modesty is reflected in the eclectic nature of his work itself, for he chose to translate juggernaut authors who died centuries ago as well as contemporary authors who were his children’s age, and everything in between. His only criterion was to never translate something he didn’t like, which I agree should be the only criterion that matters.

The last time we sat at length in person was in Beirut three years ago when he came to give a series of talks and seminars at AUB. Through the initiative and spunk of Rana, we made a surprise field trip to Shidyaq’s grave on the outskirts of Beirut where, along with Lebanese author Elias Khoury, we scaled the fence of a diet center to pay our respects Shidyaq’s final resting place and wash his mausoleum, and Humphrey read choice passages from his translation of Leg over Leg. It is not often that one gets to help your favorite translator wash the grave of one of your favorite authors! How bittersweet it is that this was the last time we were together in person, at the mausoleum of one of our spiritual forefathers. 

The pandemic quashed many elaborate plans and hopes my co-Shidyaqian Rana and I had for uncle Humph to guide our path in translating our hero’s travelogue. Yet the legacy he left us on how to translate and transcreate remains and shall continue. Our guide has suddenly departed, we must try to construct our map from the words of wisdom he left scattered here and there for us and hope for divine signals from his spirit.

Suneela Mubayi

Suneela Mubayi is a translator, independent scholar and writer of Indian descent. She has a PhD in Arabic literature from NYU and has taught Arabic language and literature in the US and England. She is interested in gender and sexual liberation, and the intersection between language, the body and poetry. She likes jokes, music and Syrian TV series.

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Suneela Mubayi is a translator, independent scholar and writer of Indian descent. She has a PhD in Arabic literature from NYU and has taught Arabic language and literature in the US and England. She is interested in gender and sexual liberation, and the intersection between language, the body and poetry. She likes jokes, music and Syrian TV series.

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