When I first asked Humphrey Davies about what it was like to translate “Two Million People in the Square,” he did not remember having translated it.
Working on a translation, while living through a revolution, can put one in a strange state of mind; afterwards, memories might evaporate as easily as dreams. Davies compares this particular translation to “automatic writing”: something was put in front on him; he wanted to help bear witness; he translated the graphic journal, but his focus was on the events the journal was describing.
“Nothing indicated” the revolution would happen, Davies said, and when it happened, he was “astounded, dumbfounded, fascinated.” He stopped almost all of his work, because it was difficult to focus on anything but the protests. In an email after our conversation, he wrote:
I remember that we tried at one point to pin down the word that best described my feelings during the “revolution” (personally, I now think of it as an uprising). It seems to me that that word is “euphoria.” And that euphoria is a kind of drug that makes one feel, and even act, differently than one normally would.
Turning to the translation itself, I asked him about the word “thugs,” which appears several times in “Two Million People in the Square.” Did the word have a particular meaning in Arabic? He explained that the Colloquial Arabic word baltagi, or thug, has acquired a political connotation in recent years; people used the word to describe violent supporters of the former Mubarak regime.
Davies’ knowledge of baltagi is more than academic. He once found himself caught up in an attack by riot police in an area close to Tahrir Square, and as tear-gas canisters fell around them, a young man pushed Davies, who was born in Great Britain, in the chest, shouting, “Get out of here! We don’t want you here!”
“I’ve been here longer than you have,” said Davies, a thirty-five-year resident of Cairo.
He may not remember translating “Two Million People in the Square,” but it probably benefited from the same kind of tenacity.