Travelling Text

Marina Warner

  • The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights translated by Malcolm Lyons, with Ursula Lyons
    Penguin, 2715 pp, £125.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 14 091166 4
  • ‘The Arabian Nights’ in Historical Context: Between East and West edited by Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum
    Oxford, 337 pp, £55.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 955415 7

Like a dance craze or a charismatic cult, The Arabian Nights seized readers’ imaginations as soon as translations first appeared – in French between 1704 and 1717, and in English from 1708. Oriental fever swept through salons and coffee-houses, the offices of broadsheet publishers and theatrical impresarios; the book fired a train of imitations, spoofs, turqueries, Oriental tales, extravaganzas. It changed tastes in dress and furniture – the sofa, the brocade dressing-gown – and even enhanced the taste of coffee. In fact its diaspora almost mimics the triumphant progress of coffee, as it metamorphosed from the thimbles of thick dark syrup drunk in Damascus and Istanbul and Cairo to today’s skinny latte, macchiato et al. Antoine Galland, the French savant and explorer who discovered and translated the earliest manuscript in Syria in the late 17th century, also published a translation of an Arabic treatise in praise of coffee, one of the first if not the first of its kind. It is his bowdlerised version of the stories that dominated their diaspora, from the ‘Arabian Nights’ Entertainments’, serialised in 445 instalments over three years in the London News, to the fantasies of the Ballets Russes, to the 1924 Thief of Baghdad, to Disney’s Aladdin and Sinbad.

In the countries of the book’s origin, the stories were considered popular trash, and excluded from the canon. In Europe, a similar sense that they had negligible status as literature came about because so many of their early enthusiasts were women. The Earl of Shaftesbury, writing in 1711, three years after the book’s first appearance in English, denounced the Desdemona tendency, claiming that the tales ‘excite’ in women ‘a passion for a mysterious Race of black Enchanters: such as of old were said to creep into Houses, and lead captive silly Women’. It’s significant, in the history of East-West relations, that Shaftesbury could only understand the alien bogeys in terms of beliefs rather closer to home than Baghdad or Cairo.

Another reason the work wasn’t taken seriously was that it eluded concepts of authorship: the stories were anonymous and composed at different periods in different places. The architecture of the frame story – Scheherazade telling stories to the sultan every night till dawn to save her life – insisted on the oral, collective, immemorial character of the tales, presenting them as a compendium of collective wisdom, or at least as literature with a thousand and one owners and users. Madeleine Dobie, in the opening essay of ‘The Arabian Nights’ in Historical Context, a collection edited by Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum, shows how Galland’s work set the trend. A brilliant linguist, antiquarian and Orientalist, Galland began the process of treating the book as something that could be altered and made to express fantasy. The most popular tales of all, the ones that have become synonymous with The Arabian Nights and have been retold in children’s books and films (‘Aladdin’, ‘Ali Baba’, ‘The Ebony Horse’, ‘Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou’), are probably Galland’s invention, concocted of pomegranates and ebony, damask and jasmine, in tribute to the style of the original stories.

No early manuscript has been found for these ‘orphan tales’, and the first Arabic version shows clear signs of being back-translated from Galland’s French. The fine Italian translation by Francesco Gabrieli, published in 1948, printed ‘Aladdin’ in an appendix, and Penguin’s new three-volume translation follows suit, allotting ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Ali Baba’ separate quarters, and leaving out Prince Ahmed’s adventures altogether. Indeed the rags-to-riches plot of ‘Aladdin’ isn’t typical of The Arabian Nights, and the success story of Ali Baba and the romance of the young man and the fairy queen echo the extravagant and often sly fairytales – ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘The White Cat’ – that were being retrieved and written down in France by Charles Perrault and Mme d’Aulnoy in the 1690s. D’Aulnoy did, however, claim that her inspiration came to her from ‘une vieille esclave arabe’.

So the story of The Arabian Nights is a story of complex attention, formed by different historical and social interests, and becoming more complex still with the publication thirty years ago of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said doesn’t discuss The Arabian Nights itself, but he does scathe some of its scholars and translators, notably the English Arabist Edward Lane, whose three-volume edition, illustrated with William Harvey’s fine steel engravings, was published between 1838 and 1841. I have a copy of this translation, which came from my great-grandfather’s library, and it’s one of the few books I owned as a child and have been reading ever since. Despite Said’s strictures, and though it’s pretty fustian, with Lane tranquillising much of the book’s agitated emotion and toning down many of its adventures, his translation is readable in a way that Richard Burton’s lurid and archaisising version, made fifty years later, is not. Lane expurgated, Burton fantasticated. There have been many wilful translations in the book’s history, a history that in its geographical, linguistic and picaresque range echoes some of the vicissitudes in the tales themselves. The Arabian Nights has been treated throughout with a kind of insouciant liberty.

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