NEAL CONAN, host:
When Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Western audiences were largely unfamiliar with him and his work. Mahfouz died earlier today at the age of 94. He long ago earned a reputation in the Arab world as one of the influential novelists of his time. His books reflect the flavor, sounds and the people of Cairo - intensely local, but never trivial and always evocative of a larger historical or social message.
As the West took more note of Mahfouz and his works, the effort to capture it in translation has been challenging. Many of his works have been translated several times over. Joining us to talk about this is Roger Allen, professor Arabic and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He has translated several works by Mahfouz and knew him personally. He joins us now from his office in Philadelphia. Nice to have you on the program today, and condolences on your loss.
Professor ROGER ALLEN (Arabic and Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: How were Mahfouz' writings - were they uniquely Egyptian?
Prof. ALLEN: Oh, I think so. One interesting thing about Naguib Mahfouz is he hated traveling. He left Egypt only twice in his life as a civil servant to go to Yugoslavia and Yemen, but otherwise he remained in Egypt. He was very much concerned about giving his readers, both in the original Arabic and in translation, as accurate a picture as he could of the life of the people of Cairo - particularly the middle classes and the lower classes - but also of trying to convey some of the major issues which were confronting the Egyptian nation throughout his career.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. He wrote - as many Arabic authors do - in standard written Arabic, which is more formal than spoken Arabic for sure. He also managed, though, to make the dialogue sound like the way people really talk.
Prof. ALLEN: Yes. This is one of his particular characteristics and virtues. Many of younger-generation writers - but also some more radical leftist writers - were very keen on trying to introduce the actual colloquial dialect into the written form of the language, but that encounters several cultural attitudes. And his great genius was his ability to write in the standard written language - which is the highest level, culturally speaking - but at the same time to make it sound as though it was an authentic piece of conversation, and to introduce very particular local dialect words into that process as well.
CONAN: And I wonder, is that easy to translate?
Prof. ALLEN: It doesn't really affect the translation process, although - I mean, by which I mean as a translator, it's not a question of being able to understand what the original text means, but reproducing it in the target language - English in our case - that's what's really difficult. It's just to try and maintain a literary level, but at the same time manage to convey the fact that in the original Arabic there is this colloquial, everyday kind of speech going on which you want to try to convey to the English reader. That's the tough part.
CONAN: There is no one that looks at a writer's words more carefully than a translator - probably not even his editor. As you looked so carefully at Mahfouz' words, what was he like as a writer? Was he felicitous? Was he clunky? Was he good?
Prof. ALLEN: Well, I think one of the first things to say about Naguib Mahfouz was that he was a civil servant and a very organized person who - in my several meetings with me - told me that because he had an eye problem throughout his life, and believe it not living in Cairo he was intolerant of bright light, you know, which is not a feature of Cairo life. So he used to write very methodically but late in the afternoon. So he was a very methodical writer, is I think the way to put it. He would plan everything down to the last detail.
He even said at one point in his great Cairo trilogy, he made notes and made a file about each character. So his style is very methodical. It's very clear. And as compared with some other novelists - particularly of contemporary novelists now who try to produce the elaborate periods of a James Joyce or a Salman Rushdie, say - that wasn't Mahfouz at all. He was very anxious to write a kind of language which would be immediately accessible to the people who read him.
CONAN: He'll be missed. Roger Allen, thanks very much.
Prof. ALLEN: Thank you.
CONAN: Roger Allen is a professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature, Chairmen of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined us from his office in Philadelphia. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.