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The Arabian Nights by Anonymous
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Aug 21, 2012

[As I have not read the Nights yet, this is not a commentary on them, but rather a comparison of the many translations available. This used to be a comment on my not-yet-review of the first volume of the Lyons translation of the Nights, but I thought it would be more helpful if it was a review. I've expanded on some of my earlier comments and tried to be more critical than "I like this one" or "this one seems odd", which was all I had time to write at the time I posted the comment. This is restricted to editions I have, as well as those of the Amazon review mentioned below, but I will put other editions into the review if they're submitted in the comments.

As many readers of foreign literature will tell you, trranslation can drastically affect your enjoyment of a book. There have been a couple of times when I have disliked something until I read it in a new translation, as with Camus' the Stranger. My reaction to the original translation by Stewart Gilbert was lukewarm. I didn't dislike it, but I felt that something was missing which didn't allow me to hear his authorial voice. Reading the Matthew Ward translation restored that something, and allowed me to enjoy the novel more thoroughly.

Nowhere is this truer than the classic Arabian Nights. There are many, many translations, both complete and partial, all of which are written in disparate styles and which all handle the more unsavory elements in different ways, and choosing one can be daunting. TO that end, I have written commentary for the passages of eight different translations, and have tried to assess them in a manner which lays out the advantages and disadvantages of each.

I got this idea from an Amazon review where someone typed out the opening passage from the first story, which contains both sexual and racial content, to see how four different translators handled them. I'll incorperate both her and my translations. The first four are hers (though in the case of the Burton, I also own it), and the rest are mine.

Mardrus and Mathers:
Now there were in the King's palace certain windows that looked on to the garden, and, as King Shahzaman leaned there and looked out, the door of the palace opened and twenty women slaves with twenty men slaves came from it; and the wife of the King, his brother, was among them and walked there in all her bright beauty. When they came to the pool of a fountain they all undressed and mingled one with another. Suddenly, on the King's wife crying: 'O Masud! Ya Masud!', a gigantic negro ran towards her, embraced her, and, turning her upon her back, enjoyed her. At this signal, all the other men slaves did the same with the women and they continued thus a long while, not ceasing their kisses and embraces and goings in and the like until the approach of dawn.
(I like the sound of it. It's readable, the sexual and racial content is handled very well, however it's not originally translated from the Arabic, but from the French, and has been criticised for inaccuracy by purists. Dr. Mardrus took many liberties with the texts, including the addition of extra tales from a supposed newly discovered secret manuscript that no one actually saw, and the expansion of sexual material. Not everyone will care, I don't think I'll even care once I've read a translation originally from the Arabic, because it really is a lot of fun to read, but it's worth knowing.)

The English translations of Dalziel's Illustrated Arabian Nights, from Barnes and Noble Classics:
One day, Shahriar had started on a great hunting match, about two days' journey from his capital; but Shahzenan, pleading ill health, was left behind. He shut himself up in his apartment, and sat down at a window that looked into the garden. Suddenly a secret gate of the palace opened, and there came out of it twenty women, in the midst of whom walked the Sultaness. The persons who accompanied the Sultaness threw off their veils and long robes, and Shahzenan was greatly surprised when he saw that ten of them were black slaves, each of whom chose a female companion. The Sultaness clapped her hands, and called: "Masoud, Masoud!" and immediately a black came running to her; and they all remained conversing familiarly together.
(Seems fairly competant, but the translator removes all hint of sexual indiscretion, which means that any reaction from the man watching will seem like an overreaction if all they're doing is conversing. Yet I would recommend this version for children, because though it is sanitised, it does not go nearly to the same lengths as...

Andrew Lang:
Now the Sultan Schahriar had a wife whom he loved more than all the world, and his greatest happiness was to surround her with splendour, and to give her the finest dresses and the most beautiful jewels. It was therefore with the deepest shame and sorrow that he accidentally discovered, after several years, that she had deceived him completely, and her whole conduct turned out to have been so bad, that he felt himself obliged to carry out the law of the land, and order the grand-vizir to put her to death.
("I used to love my wife, but she did a bad thing, so I'm going to kill her!" I can only imagine parents trying to explain away the unnamed bad thing to their children. Not recommended, at all. As you can see, it's completely different from any translation we've previously looked at, makes use of heavy paraphrasing, and results in the story being made incoherent, maybe even to the children for whom it was intended.)

Sir Richard Burton (this is an interesting one:
Thereupon Shah Zaman drew back from the window, but he kept the bevy in sight espying them from a place whence he could not be espied. They walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain amiddlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, "Here to me, O my lord Saeed!" and then sprang with a drop leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her.
(I would ignore Burton's version outright, if not for the fact that it does have certain advantages. Yes, it is racist, turning Saeed into an almost cartoonish figure because of the words used to describe him and the sexual act. Burton blatantly inserts his own materials into the text at will, something I can tell even not having any knowledge of the Arabic originals. The other translators do a little of this too, but not as much as Burton. Yet I have read other parts of these tales in his translation, and I would say that they are worth at least a quick glance because of the fascinating and esoteric quality of his prose. In reading the Burton, you almost have to learn a new way of reading, because Burton never met an obscure word or phrase he didn't like, and he freely inserted them into the Nights. He would sometimes make up words when the ones available to him didn't suit the story. His energy and sense of diction is at many points amazing, and even with the racism, I found myself beguiled while reading him. Also, if you can't be bothered spending money for the Lyons translation, which is what I recommend below, his versions can be found for free online.)

John Payne:
Now there were in King Shahzeman's apartments lattice-windows overlooking his brother's garden, and as the former was sitting looking on the garden, behold a gate of the palace opened, and out came twenty damsels and twenty black slaves, and among them his brother's wife, who was wonderfully fair and beautiful. They all came up to a fountain, where the girls and slaves took off their clothes and sat down together. Then the queen called out, "O Mesoud!" And there came to her a black slave, who embraced her and she him. Then he lay with her, and on likewise did the other slaves with the girls. And they ceased not from kissing and clipping and cricketing and carousing until the day began to wane.
(This was the basis for the Burton translation [some even criticised Burton for plagiarism, though he claimed he got permission from Payne to reuse passages]. The writing is a little flowery, in typical Victorian style, but isn't too bad otherwise. Payne's accomplishment here is hard to overstate. He taught himself Arabic, and using this knowledge, translated the first and one of the most complete versions of the Arabian Nights we now have. It's just too bad he only produced five hundred copies, which left Richard Burton's translation to take over and be the more influential of the two.)

Jonathan Scott (the so-called Aldine Edition):
While he was thus absorbed in grief, a circumstance occurred which attracted the whole of his attention. A secret gate of the sultan's palace suddenly opened, and there came out of it twenty women, in the midst of whom walked the sultaness, who was easily distinguished from the rest by her majestic air. This princess thinking that the king of Tartary was gone a-hunting with his brother the sultan, came with her retinue near the windows of his apartment. For the prince had so placed himself that he could see all that passed in the garden without being perceived himself. He observed, that the persons who accompanied the sultaness threw off their veils and long robes, that they might be more at their ease, but he was greatly surprised to find that ten of them were black men, and that each of these took his mistress. The sultaness, on her part, was not long without her gallant. She clapped her hands, and
called "Masoud, Masoud," and immediately a black descended from a tree, and ran towards her with great speed. Modesty will not allow, nor is it it necessary, to relate what passed between the blacks and the ladies. It is sufficient to say, that Shaw-zummaun saw enough to convince him, that his brother was as much to be pitied as himself. This amorous company continued together till midnight, and having bathed together in a great piece of water, which was one of the chief ornaments of the garden, they dressed themselves, and re-entered the palace by the secret door, all except Masoud, who climbed up his tree, and got over the garden wall as he had come in.
(I'm not sure what to think of this one. The way in which he glosses over the sex is kind of hilarious. it's not really censored, because he mentions the word "amorous", which makes it obvious what's going on, but he still skirts around it. He freely inserts new material not in the original for the sake of a better story, and the syntax is weird [piece of water?], so perhaps not a good fit for purists, which I am to an extent, but it could be fun to read.)

malcolm and ursula Lyons (this is the newest translation from Penguin Classics):
In the royal palace there were windows that overlooked Shahriyar’s garden, and as Shah Zaman was looking, a door opened and out came twenty slave girls and twenty slaves, in the middle of whom was Shahriyar’s very beautiful wife. They came to a fountain where they took off their clothes and the women sat with the men. ‘Mas‘ud,’ the queen called, at which a black slave came up to her and, after they had embraced each other, he lay with her, while the other slaves lay with the slave girls and they spent their time kissing, embracing, fornicating and drinking wine until the end of the day.
(I think this is the best version, and it's my personal recommendation. The English is clear and readable, there are annotations, not nearly to the extent of Burton, but they are there and help, and the language has been optimised to sound good to the ear.)

And finally, the partial translation by N. J. Dawood, also from Penguin Classics:
While Shahzaman sat at one of the windows overlooking the King's garden, he saw a door open in the palace, through which came twenty slave-girls and twenty Negroes. In their midst was his brother's queen, a woman of surpassing beauty. They made their way to the fountain, where they all undressed and sat on the grass. The King's wife then called out: "Come Mass'ood!" and there promptly came to her a black slave, who mounted her after smothering her with embraces and kisses. So also did the Negroes with the slave-girls, revelling together till the approach of night.
(Another good and fun one. It's only a partial translation, a little over 400 pages, but considering the quality, I don't mind that much. It's not censored, but as with most of the translations, handles the sexual and racial content in such a way that the reader knows they exist, but does not descend into caricature or racism.)

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message 1: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls Thank you so much for this. I'm bookmarking your "review" so I can compare the translations later. Bravo!

message 2: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Excellent, comparing translations is super helpful, thank you for taking the time to lay this out.

message 3: by Ned (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ned Rifle This is rather good, and makes me unfortunately eagerto buy the new penguins...
I read a 'Selection from the thousand and one nights' by Andrew Lang as child, luckily i was not the sort to ask questions about my books - preferring to ask other books. I was reading some Borges essays on them recently (they are,of course one of his main obsessions) and he makes the Burton Translation sound worth it just for the footnotes alone.
There is also this essay

message 4: by Ali (new) - added it

Ali The Burton is fascinating. Though I'm perfectly aware that when I read the Nights for the frame project I'm going with the Lyons, I'll give Burton's a chance later because it's still a great edition. There are over nine thousand endnotes (suck it ,DFW!) several hundred per volume (sixteen volumes), and they betray Burton's main obsessions, those being the customs of the Arabs during that time period, sexual matters, and weirdly male homosexuality, among others. I would almost, almost count Burton's edition as more of an enormous, elaborate retelling of the Nights instead of a translation, because in the months since this was written I've read more of his Nights and compared them with other translations, and have discovered that he adds to the text far more than I originally thought. As in, there are many long passages and details in his translation that simply are not included in any others, to the point that it took me three times as long to read the text up to the passage I singled out for commentary in the review, which is located in the beginning of the main frame, than it did for all the other translations.

message 5: by Ned (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ned Rifle The only notes I can remember Borges mentioning are one on the mediocrity of Andrew Lang (it may not have been 'mediocrity' but something comparable) and the other was about a plan (I have no idea whose plan)to breed women with apes to create a breed of good proletariat.
I read a £2 penguin edition of selections from Burton's Nights and the first story is absurdly misogynistic. A man, whose wife is demanding he tell her his secret - his secret is the ability to understand animals, the one catch to this gift being that if he ever tells anyone he will immediately die- for she has noticed suspicious behaviours and will not listen to his polite entreaties to quietly forget about it, demanding information even once told that he will die upon dispensing it. Resigning himself to die he asks that he be allowed to say goodbye to hiss extended family, who are quickly summoned. With everyone together he goes to pray in the barn, where he hears a cockerel telling and enraptured crowd 'you wouldn't see me letting one of my women get away with treating me like that, I would simply beat her and tell her never to ask again' upon hearing which the man thought 'what a wonderful idea' went back to the house and promptly did as suggested by the cockerel. Then it genuinely ends with the words 'and they lived happily ever after'. Re-told from memory and, i now realise, probably unnecessary but i wonder to what extent that is Burton.

message 6: by Ali (new) - added it

Ali The story itself is part of the original Arabic, I'm sure, but I don't doubt that Burton embellished the misogyny at least a little while translating it. I wondered the same thing about the racism, and again have concluded that though there is racist material in the Nights, Burton has added unnecessarily to it because of his own prejudiced tendancies, evident even when you look at the passage I commented on.

message 7: by Ned (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ned Rifle I can't help suspecting the happily ever after is all his. I do think it may be better approached once knowing a more faithful version, which is possibly not a view i held before this review.

message 8: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls The question is: is a translation that irons out/obfuscates the racism/misogyny a better translation?

message 9: by Nathan "N.R." (last edited Dec 08, 2012 11:29AM) (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis MJ wrote: "The question is: is a translation that irons out/obfuscates the racism/misogyny a better translation?"

If the translation containing racist/misogynist passages is a racism/misogynism characteristic of the 19th century, then a translation without 19th century flavored racism would be likely a more accurately reproductive translation. 1001 Nights is a really old collection.

Also, Burton's reputation and practices are fairly well documented. His collection is just so prodigious.

But also, there is no single version of the Arabic text, or definitive set of stories; there are no "1001" stories/nights.

message 10: by Ali (last edited Dec 21, 2012 06:00PM) (new) - added it

Ali NR: I don't know why I didn't see your latest edit to that last comment, but you are correct. When wanting to do a new version of the Nights, a translator must first choose between two different manuscripts of the Arabic, the earlier fourteenth century Syrian version that reached Europe via the translation of the Frenchman Antoine Galland, a genius with regard to storytelling, responsible for such tales as Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor, and Aladdin which have made it into pop culture, in the early 1700's, which is truncated and contains less stories, forcing Monsieur Galland to add and embellish to the stories freely to satisfy the needs of the public (it is said that in the middle of the night, fans would gather beneath his window and yell entreaties for more stories at him ["give us morra those fecund stories yer seemta have so mucha if the Sultan'll let yer, dear sister!" or something like that] until he gave in and cranked out another volume, a situation which persisted for thirteen years and twelve volumes), and the much fuller and elaborate manuscripts referred to as Zotenberg's Egyptian Recension after the scholar who collated them in the 1880's, which in turn are made up of two versions, the Bulaq edition from 1835 and the Macnaghten edition from 1839-42 (there are heated debates as to which of these is preferable), containing 1001 stories, but unfortunately of much more dubious origin and with stories that were not included in the "original". Indeed, Nights scholars have speculated as to whether or not either of these manuscripts bear any resemblance to what was originally written, and there are those who say that the original Nights can only have contained a few stories of what we now know as the Thousand Nights and a Night that have survived. And by a few, I really mean a few. As in a wopping four or five stories. Eight at the most. I'll need to test this to be sure, but one could go so far as to say that if you were to read all of the seven English translations of the Nights, it would be a different reading experience each time and you'd find different stories in each translation not included in any other.
So pick your poison: If you want the older and more authentic but incomplete Galland, you'll have much less stories, five or six hundred pages worth, but if you want 1001 better, fuller stories, what you're translating will be a hybrid from multiple texts and will be less likely than the Galland to have come from the earliest manuscripts. If you want to read both in modern translations, get the beautiful Husain Haddawy edition from W.W. Norton for Galland and the Lyons for Zotenberg. With those, you will have the closest thing to a definitive Arabian Nights currently available in English.

message 11: by Lubinka (new)

Lubinka Dimitrova Ali wrote: "The Burton is fascinating. Though I'm perfectly aware that when I read the Nights for the frame project I'm going with the Lyons, I'll give Burton's a chance later because it's still a great editio..."

Burton IS fascinating, and I'm sure you won't regret giving him a chance. I don't know how much of the endnotes will offer you some useful information; they were most helpful for me though, since I had virtually no previous knowledge of the arabian life and culture.
Thank you for the insightful review.

message 12: by P. (new)

P. Interesting. Jordan and Qatar produced a show that focused on Scheherazade a couple years ago, and in that one, the Sultan's wife has an affair with the gardener. It's in a bedroom though, and the Sultan comes in on them and kills them both. Then he mourns for the longest time, and after that starts beheading brides.

I read the Andrew Lang version, and though some of it was okay, I did get the feeling that he was skipping and summarizing a lot. I've been wanting to find other translations to read.

message 13: by John M. (new)

John M. Madsen If you want only a single version, then I agree that Lyons is the one to get. However, the Burton version is such a wonderful and entertaining read that I myself would have to choose that one. Fortunately though, there's no reason to own only one.

For those who come across this thread and do not know the One Thousand and One Nights - you really ought to rectify that situation post haste.

message 14: by Russell (new) - added it

Russell Thanks for taking the time to compare these translations/editors of this amazing book.
I came here from a link at myanon because I am supremely confused about which book I want to read.
So many different translators.
I want to read the book that has all of the stories that have made this book famous but I also want all of the original (pardon me for being blunt) sex and violence, that I understand has been removed from some of the translations?
Anyway, I have to read through your entire review here, and I will still probably be undecided when I am finished. Lol
Again, thank you.

message 15: by Aubrey (last edited Jun 05, 2015 04:21PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Aubrey Thanks for this, Ali. I'm glad to see that the translation I'm reading on my first go, Mardrus and Mathers, is good if not great. I'm counting on there being a translation even better than the Malcolm and Ursula Lyons when I reread the work in a couple decades or so.

message 16: by Fiona (new)

Fiona This is such a great resource, Ali - thanks for taking the time to put it together!

message 17: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Thanks for this. Shall I start with the penguin editions, would you recommend?

message 18: by Ali (last edited Nov 10, 2015 03:46AM) (new) - added it

Ali (This review could use some updating and revision, but I'm glad it remains useful to you.) It depends on what you want. If you're looking for the most authentic translation of the oldest manuscripts, go for the edition translated by Husain haddawy from W. W. norton, if you want an edition with exactly 1001 stories, yes, you can turn to the three-volume Penguins. But actually, since I wrote this the Wikipedia entry for the Arabian Nights has been updated and now says that the Lyons translation "streamlines somewhat and has cuts", so it's not quite the translational panacea I thought it was at the time, and English continues to lag behind when it comes to authoritative translations of the Nights.

message 19: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Ali wrote: "(This review could use some updating and revision, but I'm glad it remains useful to you.) It depends on what you want. If you're looking for the most authentic translation of the oldest manuscript..."

The Husain haddawy one is less in terms of content, right? Where did the extra stories come from?

message 20: by Ali (last edited Nov 10, 2015 04:18AM) (new) - added it

Ali Yes, it's less than six hundred pages and covers 271 nights. The extra stories came from various sources, depending on which manuscript you're looking at, but suffice it to say that throughout the history of the Nights its editors, for their own individual reasons (they wanted an edition with the advertised one thousand nights and a night, they wanted to satisfy public demand for more more more stories [as much as people love to trot out that canescent old saw about how the trashy bestsellers of yestercentury are the classics of today, this may be one of the few instances where that was actually true]) would incorperate unrelated Middle Eastern folk tales and story cycles into the manuscript of the Nights, or in some cases simply make up stories of their own.

message 21: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Ali wrote: "Yes, it's less than six hundred pages and covers 271 nights. The extra stories came from various sources, depending on which manuscript you're looking at, but suffice it to say that throughout the ..."

Oh so the original one did not stretch for 1001 nights? Or did some stories take up more than a night... :) Thanks for indulging, Ali!

message 22: by Ali (new) - added it

Ali Oh no. if we went all the way back to collect the very oldest Nights from the Eighth century, the resulting book would be less than a hundred pages, because there are only eleven stories that have survived. The history of the Nights is a history of expansion, until the nineteenth century, every time they were copied, whether in the tenth, fourteenth, or eighteenth centuries, their editors were compelled to keep adding new stories and story layers to the text, hence why the manuscript branches contain such wildly varying stories. Haddawy writes:

The stories of the Nights circulated in different manuscript copies until they were finally written down in a definite form, or what may be referred to as the original version, in the second half of the thirteenth century, within the Mamluk domain, either in Syria or in Egypt. That version, now lost, was copied a generation or two later in what became the archetype for subsequent copies. It too is now lost, but its existence is clearly attested to by the remarkable similarities in substance, form, and style among the various early copies, a fact that points to a common origin. Specifically, all the copies share the same nucleus of stories, which must have formed the original and which appear in the present translation. The only exception is the “Story of Qamar al-Zaman,” of which only the first few pages are extant in any Syrian manuscript, and for this reason I have not included it in the present translation.

From the archetype there evolved two separate branches of manuscripts, the Syrian and the Egyptian. Of the Syrian branch four manuscripts are known to exist. The first is the copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, in three volumes (nos. 3609-3611). It is of all existing manuscripts the oldest and the closest to the original, having been written sometime during the fourteenth century. The other three Syrian manuscripts were copied much later, in the sixteenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, respectively. They are, however, very close to the fourteenth-century manuscript and similarly contain only the nucleus and the very first part of “Qamar al-Zaman.”

If the Syrian branch shows a fortunately stunted growth that helped preserve the original, the Egyptian branch, on the contrary, shows a proliferation that produced an abundance of poisonous fruits that proved almost fatal to the original. First, there exists a plethora of Egyptian copies all of which, except for one written in the seventeenth century, are late, dating between the second part of the eighteenth and the first part of the nineteenth century. Second, these copies delete or modify passages that exist in the Syrian manuscripts, add others, and indiscriminately borrow from each other. Third, the copyists, driven to complete one thousand and one nights, kept adding folk tales, fables, and anecdotes from Indian, Persian, and Turkish, as well as indigenous sources, both from the oral and from the written traditions. One such example is the story of Sindbad, which, though early in date, is a later addition. What emerged, of course, was a large, heterogeneous, indiscriminate collection of stories by different hands and from different sources, representing different layers of culture, literary conventions and styles tinged with the Ottoman cast of the time, a work very different from the fundamentally homogeneous original, which was the clear expression of the life, culture, and literary style of a single historical moment, namely, the Mamluk period. This is the more significant because the Ottoman period is marked by a sharp decline in Arabic culture in general and literature in particular.

message 23: by Riku (last edited Nov 10, 2015 06:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Ali wrote: "Oh no. if we went all the way back to collect the very oldest Nights from the Eighth century, the resulting book would be less than a hundred pages, because there are only eleven stories that have ..."

Given that epics that grow organically turn out pretty awesome, i see no reason to consider the Egyptian versions with multitudinous poisonous fruits inferior...

Thanks for the excerpt. It is clear now that I need to read both the versions.

Which would be the best translated representatives of each? Husain haddawy for the Syrian spartan one and Lyons (penguin) for the Egyptian spawn and perhaps Burton for a further burst of profligacy, kept for the last? Seems like a good reading plan to follow?

message 24: by Ali (last edited Nov 10, 2015 06:33AM) (new) - added it

Ali Yes, that's right. You could pick up others if you wanted (the Mardrus and Mathers for entertainment, John Payne for his elloquence of style [Burton is said to have plagiarised significantly from him]), both translations of the fuller Egyptian manuscripts, or the first English translaition by a "Grub Street Hack", available as an Oxford World's Classic with notes, for its entertainment and historical value), but Lyons and Haddawy will give you an excellent introduction to both manuscript branches, and should be part of anyone's library if they wish to read the Nights.

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