The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights. In Three-Volumes. Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons. Introduced and Annotated by Robert Irwin. Fiction. Trade paperback. Penguin Classics. Specific edition information for each volume are listed at the bottom of this post.
Illustration below from the Edmond Dulac edition.
Shahrazad and Her Captors
This, your majesty, is an example of the wiles of women.
-from the 602nd night.
In his essay “When Fiction Lives in Fiction” Jorge Luis Borges describes what is perhaps the most miraculous moment in all of storydom. He writes that on the six-hundred and second night of her perilous marriage, Princess Shahrazad begins to tell a story that so eerily mirrors her own that she soon recognizes it to be precisely that: the tale of her life and predicament as wife of the vindictive King Sharyar. Just as she must tell a story every night to entertain her cruel king so too does the princess in her story have to entertain her own homicidal lord. In fact the fictional princess is telling the exact same stories Shahrazad has already told.
The horror invoking implication is of course that the fictional princess of Shahrazad’s story will at some point arrive at a six-hundred and second night of her own and begin to tell a story of yet another princess, who in turn will craft another equivalent tale ad infinitum.
Borges goes on to explain that Shahrazad realizes the eternal nature of this particular night’s story and quickly changes the tale to escape the infinitely repeating narrative. It is a whimsical notion, this endless story, born of the freely romping nature of the work Borges is referring to. The Thousand And One Nights aka The Arabian Nights is perhaps the only work of literature where such an incident could occur.
Alas, it does not occur. Borges made the whole thing up. A reading of multiple translations will quickly inform you of Borges’ sleight of hand. Out of all one-thousand and one nights the six-hundred and second is easily among the most ordinary.
The Arabian Nights is a massive work of literature comprised of Egyptian, Persian and to some extent also Greek and Roman stories. The sources it draws upon are as diverse as the Buddhist Jataka Tales, Aesop’s Fables, and in particular two works of classical Indian literature: the fables of the Panchatantra and the extremely ponderous Ocean Of The Streams Of Stories. The latter is perhaps the most similar as it was composed in 11th century Kashmir to entertain a queen every evening and maintains a similar frame-story style of one narrative leading to another.
In a sense there is no definitive edition of the Nights in any language. Some of the tales date well over a thousand years in age and others seem to have been supplemented as time went on, with some of the stories arriving as late as the nineteenth century. Despite all these variations and esoteric influences most of us have at some point encountered a version of the Nights. The names Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba have enjoyed a lasting appeal in popular culture. Shahrazad, via one spelling or another, has lent her name to things as diverse as a species of lily and a Rimsky-Korsakov symphony. In other words: they’ve left their mark. What of the actual tale that constitutes the framework of the Arabian Nights? It isn’t nearly as well known.
A cuckolded and thus now vindictive Arab King by the name of Sharyar has set about the practice of marrying a different girl every day, deflowering her in the evening and then executing her by first light. This is the only way he believes he can avoid the shame of infidelity. As the King’s country is slowly depleted of nubile women the King’s vizier is having an increasingly difficult time hiding his beloved eldest daughter, the very learned Shahrazad. Much to the chagrin of the vizier, Shahrazad not only marries the King but does so quite willingly. She believes that through the power of knowledge and story she can change the newly wicked King back into the wise ruler he once was.
The bold Shahrazad does this by every night telling a tale that amazes and delights her King. At daybreak she avoids execution by leaving the story she is telling unfinished and in turn the enraptured King spares her life so he can hear the completion of the story the next night. Much to his eternal surprise he finds yet another story emerging from within the previous and yet another night required for its completion. And so on and so on. It is because of this framework of story leading to story, all of them filled with magical beings, fantastical palaces and the occasional flying carpet that the Borgesian version of the six-hundred and second night seems an appropriate invention.
Italo Calvino once characterized Borges’ invention (lie) as being something that, “he did well, because it represents the natural enchassement of the tales.” Calvino’s point is not to excuse the offense of the lie but rather praise the Argentine’s imagination and to imply some form of inherent malleability within the Arabian Nights narrative.
The idea to inventively quote from a classic of world literature is perhaps something more than imaginative. It is technically also reprehensible. In the case of the Arabian Nights it is just another event on the timeline and par for the course. Shahrazad may have been clever enough to spin one-thousand and one nights worth of stories to free a kingdom, but her stories have only proven fodder for a litany of literary cons. Borges being the least.
Throughout its history the Arabian Nights have been coaxed, hoaxed and flat out manipulated by translators for various personal reasons. The earliest “complete” translation was the very liberal rendering made by the Frenchman Antoine Galland in the early eighteenth century. Galland’s translation sought to moralize and adapt the Nights to correspond with the attitudes and morosophy of the Sun King’s court. Essentially Galland borrowed from the Arabic classic to fashion a series of edifying fables meant to affirm the convictions of the courtly matrons who sponsored his writing. The gallant court of Louis the XIV was a lucrative one for fabulists like Galland, Charles Perrault and Jean de La Fontaine. In Galland’s inventive hands the untapped resource of the Arabian Nights became a goldmine.
The first English-language translations followed Galland’s closely but again were altered to fit the readership of a different time and place. These works typically took on more prudish storylines and contained a clearly defined Christian moral to complete each tale. In some cases, as in James Ridley’s 1764 collection Tales Of The Genii, the works were not even translations so much as fully realized Christian fables dressed up in exotic oriental costume. Under the pens of these “translators” the sages of the Orient parroted Christian doctrine and the foibles of the unlucky heathen became mere proofs of the pitfalls of improper living.
In the mid-nineteenth century a somewhat full-scale English translation was rendered by Edward Lane. Lane’s translation emphasized a didactic approach to the Orient of the Nights, with footnotes and appendices that sought to bolster the reputation of Lane as an Orientalist as much as it sought to edify its readers. Because of this purpose, Lane’s translation is loaded with somewhat pedantically inflated language meant to serve as educational (impressive) to lay (gullible) audiences.
Brief aside: Lane went on to marry the eight-year old Egyptian slave that he had procured, though some say she was gifted to him, under the auspices of guiding her education.
Self-gratifying motives poorly hidden on his sleeves, Lane’s translation was yet heavily expurgated along lines of Christian propriety. The practice of bowdlerizing the Nights would continue for some time.
That is until the most famous translation of the Nights arrived at the end of the nineteenth century. Infamous, perhaps would be more apropos. Sir Richard Burton’s 1885 unexpurgated translation is titled The Book Of the Thousand Nights and One Night and it is one of the most controversial translations of any kind. It is also largely considered the standard literary edition of the Nights in English. That is until now.
There is a key word in the last statement. The Burton translation is a literary one. Read: Inventive. Like his predecessors Lane and Galland, Burton utilized the Nights as a springboard for his already grand reputation. In Burton’s case it was an infamous rep, replete with accusations of murder, deceit and sexual deviance. Unlike Lane, Burton had no pretense of hiding these illicit deeds and even relished them to some extend. Burton also never sought to soften the sexuality of the Nights. In fact Burton, who once proudly announced to a priest that he had committed every sin in the Decalogue, took his greatest liberties with the text by expanding on these scenes. He was after all a self-styled expert on all things sexual, represented by his work translating the Kama Sutra and the Islamic love manual, The Perfumed Garden.
The image most have of Burton is influenced by the many hobbies and supposed areas of expertise the great Victorian possessed. Orientalist, soldier, traveler, hypnotist and translator of secret manuals of lovemaking seem a hyperbolic recipe for a Will Ferell movie and yet all were subjects Burton at least dabbled in. The eastern influenced aesthetics of Victorian England coupled with Burton’s larger than life adventures create a seemingly ideal translator for the bawdy mysticism of the Arabian Nights. This last notion, that of the Burton Nights being an ideal marriage of translator and text is one that has persisted for over a century.
Truthfully, that notion needs to be laid to rest and thanks to a brand new translation by Malcolm C. Lyons it can be. Published by Penguin Classics, Lyons impressive three-volume (nearly three thousand pages) edition of The Arabian Nights is a landmark achievement and solves many of the difficulties readers have faced with previous translations. In a sense, the Nights have been treated honestly for the first time.
Gone are the self-serving footnotes of Burton and Lane meant to impress the reader with their knowledge of obscure Oriental traditions. So too have the Christianized endings been avoided, not to mention the courtly fashions of Galland’s Sun King. Thankfully absent from the Lyons translation is anything resembling Burton’s bizarre epigrams and footnotes. In order to foster an academic impression of his translation Burton included some of the oddest footnotes and tedious variants of song lyrics piled one atop the other.
Of Burton’s footnotes perhaps none is more bizarre than the one explaining why debauched women prefer taking moors as lovers because of the size of their members. While that may seem like a very entertaining footnote, it is yet a racist non sequitur and goes on for a good page and a half. Just to be clear on something, debauched and moor are Burton’s words. Not to mention the use of the awkward word “fuddle,” which Burton uses for all instances of sexual intercourse. Used in a sentence? After fuddling the Queen the King went to sleep. He quickly fuddled the Princess while the Genii slept. Snicker if you will, but after two-thousand pages of this you will long for something a little more direct.
I’m not even going to touch the twenty-odd page discussion of pederasty in Arab cultures with which Burton concludes his translation.
The Lyons translation is everything that its forebears are not. It is earnest, professional and devoid of self-aggrandizing pedantry. Not to mention that it is also a joy to read. This is especially the case when you consider that both the Lane and Burton translations can seem overwrought if not purposefully confounding. The adventure and romance of the Arabian Nights is finally all its own. No longer is Shahrazad a parrot of a translator’s motives or their patron’s fashions.
Worth mentioning is the fact that the Lyons translation is a “full” rendering of the same source manuscript from which Burton created his edition. Also worth noting is the fact that it contains many of the supplemental stories that have enjoyed lasting fame in Western cultures of which the tales concerning Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba are among. These stories are not actually a part of any primary source editions of the Nights but instead first appear collected in the Galland edition. Most of them are derived entirely from other works. The inclusion of these reader favorites is important to note as some critics of the Lyons translation have deemed it overly academic.
There is even one criticism of the Lyons translation that cites the weird spelling of Shahrazad used by Lyons throughout his translation as a chief turnoff. They go on to say that they prefer the spelling Burton uses, not to mention how perfectly paired Burton and the Nights are for each other.
Interestingly enough both Burton and Lyons use the same spelling, which brings it all full circle and once again poor Shaharazad lives at the mercy of ill intentions. It would seem that the Arabian Nights are fated to suffer at the hands of charlatans, hucksters and that most ruthless brand of reciprocity found in the more soiled alcoves of the academe. Perhaps it is the immensity of the work that makes it susceptible. They’re betting that you won’t ever actually read the massive work because, well, they themselves have not.
Hopefully this too will come to an end with Lyons’ translation. The Arabian Nights is a collection of tales that are at once sublime and risqué, bawdy yet profound. The fantasy world Shaharazad creates for her King is one that needs no embellishments and truthfully suffers under any would-be attempts to do so. It has taken many more than one-thousand and one nights to happen, but at last Shahrazad's brilliant wiles are now free. Not just from the whims of her mad King but also the ill-intentions of her translators.
Oh, and the six-hundred and second night as translated by Lyons? Boring as ever. The version by Borges is still the best.
The Lyons Translation Of The Arabian Nights
The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights. Volume 1. Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons. Introduced and Annotated by Robert Irwin. Fiction. Trade paperback. Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780140449389. 982 pps. $20.
The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights. Volume 2. Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons. Introduced and Annotated by Robert Irwin. Fiction. Trade paperback. Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780140449396. 878 pps. $20.
The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights. Volume 3. Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons. Introduced and Annotated by Robert Irwin. Fiction. Trade paperback. Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780140449402. 855 pps. $20.
Additional thoughts and background information can be found in the comments section.