Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Marvellous thieves?

Paulo Lemos Horta, Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2017, pp.363 - Reviewed by David Tresilian

Marvellous thieves?

The English translators of the Thousand and One Nights (Alf Leila wa Leila – the Arabian Nights) have been an unusual bunch, their number having included antiquarians, soldiers, swashbuckling adventurers and only relatively recently more careful scholars. 

Some of them have had a less than perfect knowledge of Arabic (at least one of them may not have known the language well at all), and most of them have been cavalier, to say the least, in their treatment of the original Arabic stories. While few of them went to the lengths of the late 19th-century soldier and all-round adventurer Sir Richard Burton in their translations of the Nights, Burton having more or less invented much of his famous version, all of them seem to have used their translations to further their own agendas. 

As US academic Paulo Lemos Horta makes clear in his absorbing new study of mostly English translators of the Nights, Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, the story collection seems to have encouraged almost every form of licence. Presented by its first European translator, the 18th-century Frenchman Antoine Galland, as a literary expression of mediaeval Arab civilisation, a sort of Arabic equivalent to tales by Chaucer or Boccaccio, the stories of the Thousand and One Nights were in fact marginal to the societies from which they came.

Some of the best-known stories in the collection are set in mediaeval Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, at the time of the fifth caliph Haroun Al-Rashid (763-809 CE). Some of them take place within striking distance of the caliph’s palace, and the caliph himself even figures in a few of them. However, it seems unlikely that Haroun or any other cultivated Abbasid gentleman would have been familiar with the stories of the Nights.

Abbasid society in its golden age was associated with formidable feats of scholarship, including the translation of many of the Greek and Roman classics into Arabic and the development of a vast library of religious and literary materials believed to be necessary to the education of any cultivated person. The Nights, written in poor Arabic and set largely in a mercantile milieu, would not have figured among them.

While their European translators have sometimes wanted to present the Nights as a source of special insight into Arab civilisation, the collection as it has come down to us today is largely a product of European interest or even a straightforwardly European invention. The first chapter of Horta’s book on Galland’s pioneering French translation of the Nights explains that the translator had a keen eye on 18th-century literary taste, producing versions of the stories that introduce moral order to what could sometimes seem to be a random concatenation of events. He also probably invented at least some of the most famous of them. 

These latter stories, which include “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” present particular headaches for the translator. While Galland claimed he had translated the entire collection from a manuscript acquired in Syria where he had been on a mission for the French government, the Arabic originals of these stories have never been found. Subsequent translators have not unreasonably assumed that Galland invented them as a way of filling out his collection, and as a result they have sometimes refused to include them.

Marvellous thieves?

Galland is the first of the “marvellous thieves” of Horta’s title, though his thieving, if such it was, is probably better described as fraud. “After translating all the stories in his incomplete Arabic manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights,” and enjoying the celebrity that had come from their success with French audiences, “Galland was in need of more.” He found them in additional stories told him by “a young traveler from Aleppo [in Syria] by the name of Hanna Diyab,” Horta writes, who seems to have been responsible for Aladdin, Ali Baba, and the equally famous story of “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peru-Banu” in Galland’s version. While the latter produced elegant French versions of the stories, launching the 18th-century vogue for the “oriental tale”, Diyab, a talented storyteller in his own right, made a lasting contribution to world literature.

Subsequent translators were no more scrupulous than Galland in their treatment of the stories, though their distortions took different forms. There was, for example, the case of Henry Torrens, a civil servant working in British India, whose unfinished 1838 translation of the Nights was the first to work from the Calcutta II edition prepared by the British Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. Horta describes Torrens, whose remarkable translation of the Nights has been largely forgotten, as having been “an aspiring poet who saw the Arabian Nights as an outlet for his own literary ambitions”.

Then there was the version of the Nights produced by Edward Lane, a leading orientalist, whose Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians is an essential record of early 19th-century Egypt. Lane’s translation of the Nights, produced as a by-product of his time in Cairo, is one of the century’s best-known translations. Unlike Torrens’s version, emerging out of the antiquarian milieu of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Lane’s translation was directed at the mid-19th-century English reading public. Horta says that “the challenge of bridging the seemingly incompatible cultural worlds of modern England and modern Cairo would drive Lane’s translation of the Nights.” 

Building bridges meant explanation, and Lane’s version of the Nights, the most accurate thus far, had “ethnographic” as well as literary aims. Page after page of commentary fills out his translation, explaining everything from references to magic to Arab marriage customs, the collection becoming, in Horta’s words, “an illustration of [Arab] social practices.” Moreover, in Lane’s hands the delicacy and sophistication of Galland’s 18th-century French Arabs disappears behind the fire and brimstone of English 19th-century Protestantism, with the early 17th-century King James version of the Bible providing a kind of default English style.

“Lane’s versions of the tales are immediately recognisable for their deliberately archaic use of language,” Horta comments, “the adaptation of the King James Bible to an Arabic text… Preoccupied with the foreignness of the text, he chose to pursue what reviewers would term a scriptural style. In ‘The Story of the Fisherman’, Lane’s evil jinni speaks in strangely biblical proverbs: ‘covet not life, for thy death is unavoidable’. The response of the frightened fisherman reflects the artificiality for which Lane’s translation became known: ‘this is a Jinnee, and I am a man; and God hath given me sound reason; therefore, I will now plot his destruction with my art and reason, like as he hath plotted with his cunning and perfidy.”

Perhaps Lane thought that even if fishermen did not talk quite like that in 19th-century Cairo, they very well might have done in 10th-century Baghdad. The results were “hit and miss”, Horta comments, but this scarcely mattered to Victorian audiences. “Lane’s work would be read not for the stories it contained, but for the beautiful illustrations [by illustrator William Harvey] and the fascinating anecdotes [of Arab life] gathered in its commentary.”

The apotheosis of this kind of translation is Burton’s late 19th-century version of the Nights, still in print today, which for many people has come to represent almost the stories’ natural idiom. Burton described his method of translation as being an attempt “to copy tone and sound” from the original, though what Horta describes as his “foreignising aesthetic of archaic and invented words [pushed] almost to the point of self-parody” has nothing natural about it. 

According to British Arabist Robert Irwin, an authority on the Nights, Burton’s translation is a “sort of composite mock-Gothic, combining elements from Middle English, the Authorised [King James] Version of the Bible and Jacobean drama.” His strange vocabulary, contorted syntax, and bizarre expressions, “lurching between the erudite and the earthy,” mean that Haroun Al-Rashid, Sinbad the Sailor and others “walk and talk in a linguistic never-never land” of Burton’s own invention.

Burton’s translation, a fake antique if ever there was one, comes out badly in Horta’s account, and Burton himself, often copying out the translation of his competitor John Payne with only minor changes, does not escape his censure. However, as long as one remembers that Burton’s version of the stories may say more about Burton and 19th-century England than it does about Abbasid Baghdad, his translation can still impress contemporary audiences.

 “It is related, O auspicious King, that there was a merchant of the merchants who had much wealth, and business in various cities,” Scheherazade begins the “Tale of the Trader and the Jinni,” in Burton’s version. “Quoth the merchant, “Verily from Allah we proceeded and unto Allah are we returning. There is no Majesty, and there is no Might save in Allah, the Glorious, the Great!”

It is not modern English, or even late 19th-century English, but a concoction of Burton’s brewing. He thought that efforts to “remake the stories” in a flatter idiom were “a violation of the cosmopolitan mission of translation”, Horta comments, “which should pursue the goal of unsettling the reader’s sense of what is right or even what is possible.”

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