Lyons, Malcolm & Ursula, trans. Three Tales from The Arabian Nights.
Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2008.
Ever since Burton's complete translation of the 1001 Nights appeared in ten huge volumes in 1885 - with, hot on its heels, another six volumes of Supplemental Nights from other sources - readers have learned to associate the collection with size. So how could one even dream of compiling a one-volume epitome of this vast ocean of stories, teased out by Scheherazade for almost three years of concentrated tale-telling?
Back in the days when the Nights were one of my principal obsessions, I came up with the idea of editing a single-volume anthology which would attempt somehow to do justice to their richness and variety. This was the era of the Oxford & Faber Books of this, that and the other (Death, Dreams, Beasts, Illness, the Supernatural are just some of the titles I remember rummaging through), so I guess I thought of my book as the Oxford Book of the Arabian Nights.
The first order of business was to try and analyse the other attempts at such a compendium which had been made at different times:
Example One: GALLAND (1704-1717)
Arabian Nights Entertainments: Consisting of One Thousand and One Stories, Told by the Sultaness of the Indies, to divert the Sultan from the Execution of a bloody Vow he had made to marry a Lady every day, and have her cut off next Morning, to avenge himself for the Disloyalty of his first Sultaness, &c. Containing a better Account of the Customs, Manners, and Religion of the Eastern Nations, viz. Tartars, Persians, and Indians, than is to be met with in any Author hitherto published. Translated into French from the Arabian Mss. by M. Galland of the Royal Academy, and now done into English from the last Paris Edition. 1706-1717. 16th ed. 4 vols. London & Edinburgh: C. Elliot, 1781.
I bought this ‘sixteenth edition’ of Galland's pioneering translation of the Nights in Edinburgh in 1988. It's really too old and fragile to read with comfort, but I guess one of the attractions of the book was the fact that it reminded me of that passage in the Prelude where Wordsworth talks about the ‘precious treasure’ he owned as a boy:
A little, yellow canvass-covered Book,
A slender abstract of the Arabian Tales;
And when I learned, as now I first did learn,
From my companions in this new abode,
That this dear prize of mine was but a block
Hewn from a mighty quarry – in a word,
That there were four large Volumes, laden all
With kindred matter – ‘twas, in truth, to me
A promise scarcely earthly. Instantly
I made a league, a covenant with a friend
Of my own age, that we should lay aside
The monies we possessed, and hoard up more,
Till our joint savings had amassed enough
To make this book our own. Through several months
Religiously did we preserve that vow,
And spite of all temptation hoarded up
And hoarded up; but firmness failed at length
Nor were we ever masters of our wish.- The Prelude (1805) bk 5: ll.482-500
[Quoted from William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill.
The Oxford Authors (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990) 446-47.]
Given that Wordsworth was ‘not nine years old’ in the passage quoted above (bk 5. l.474), whereas his friend (the ‘Boy’ of ‘There was a Boy’) was not yet ‘full twelve years old’ when he was ‘taken from his mates’ a few lines before, we could probably date this attempted purchase somewhere between 1779 and 1781. It's a bit strained, perhaps, but you could think of the complete copy of the "Arabian Tales" I bought two hundred years later as being the same one poor old Wordsworth missed out on!
Mack, Robert L., ed. Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
The modern equivalent to Wordsworth's slender one-volume "abstract" of the Nights would have to be Robert Mack's complete Worlds Classics edition of the first English translation of Galland. It's a bit cramped, but there's no questioning its usefulness. That's one solution, then: trying to cram the whole thing into one large volume.
Example Two: LANE (1838-1841)
Lane, Edward William, trans. The Thousand and One Nights, Commonly Called, in England, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. A New Translation from the Arabic, with Copious Notes. 3 vols. London: Charles Knight, 1839-41.
This is roughly the procedure followed in this one-volume reprint of Lane's translation, too. If you take out all the illustrations, and just concentrate on the text, you can just cram it all in, given Lane's decision to leave out anything in the collection which he considered to be in the bit least questionable morally.
Lane, Edward William, trans. The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments or The Thousand and One Nights: The Complete, Original Translation of Edward William Lane, with the Translator’s Complete, Original Notes and Commentaries on the Text. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1927.
Example Three: BURTON (1885-1888)
Burton, Richard F., trans. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments. 1885. 3 vols. New York: The Heritage Press, 1934.
I already mentioned above just how long Burton's translation is. This modern reprint manages to cram the ten volumes of his translation proper into three huge hardbacks, without omitting the notes or the terminal essay. It does, however, have to leave out the other six "supplemental" volumes.
Burton, Richard F., trans. The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, or The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Selection of the Most Famous and Representative of these Tales. Ed. Bennett A Cerf. 1932. Introductory Essay by Ben Ray Redman. New York: Modern Library, 1959.
There are, of course, many selections from Burton available still. Probably the most famous and influential of these is Bennett Cerf's "Modern Library" edition, which proudly proclaimed itself to be an "adult" [i.e. unexpurgated] selection - still a controversial approach in the 1930s. Burton's wife put out a heavily censored edition in the late 1880s, and even the 12-volume "library edition" of the 1890s could not quite bring itself to reprint everything. Cerf's book accordingly sold like hot cakes, and may still be in print for all I know ...
Example Four: PAYNE (1882-1889)
Payne, John, trans. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. 1882-1884. Publisher's Note by Steven Moore. 3 vols. Ann Arbor, MI: Borders Classics, 2007.
We now come to one of the most interesting translations of the Nights. Unfairly overshadowed by Burton's ten-volume version, John Payne's privately-published, nine-volume edition was actually the first complete translation of the Nights into any European language. It's recently been reprinted in full by "Borders Classics" (though without the four "supplementary volumes" issued later), but it also gave rise to one of the most interesting of all one-volume epitomes of the collection as a whole: Joseph Campbell's Portable Arabian Nights (1952):
Payne, John, trans. The Portable Arabian Nights. 1882-1884. Ed. Joseph Campbell. 1952. New York: The Viking Press, 1963.
Campbell is extremely (some would say unfairly) scornful of Burton in his introduction, virtually accusing him of plagiarising the bulk of his translation from Payne's pioneering work. Some - though not all - of these accusations can be found in Payne's own autobiography, but one would have to say that neither made any secret of their dependence on each other. Burton certainly scooped the pot, though, and it may well have been the success of the Modern Library 's "Adult Selection" from Burton which inspired Campbell to try and rehabilitate Payne.
The method he chose was most interesting. He reprinted, in full, the beginning and end of Payne's complete translation of the collection proper, then put in summaries and epitomes of all the other stories, a very few of which he gave in full. The ingenuity of this approach, while undoubtedly valuable to anyone wanting to have at their fingertips information about any given Arabian Nights story without access to a research library, appears to have been slightly lost on the public. The Portable Arabian Nights is almost unobtainable today, whereas Bennett Cerf's selection can still be found easily in most second-hand shops. I'm afraid that the Nights reputation as an "adult", even a pornographic work, dies hard, and surprisingly few readers are interested in more tidy and respectable versions.
Example Five: MARDRUS / MATHERS (1882-1889)
Mathers, E. Powys, trans. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night: Rendered into English from the Literal and Complete French Translation of Dr. J. C. Mardrus. 4 vols. 1949. 2nd ed. 1964. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.
That's certainly the case with the next example in our list. Dr J. C. Mardrus's elaborate fin-de-siècle translation first appeared in French between 1899 and 1904, and was translated into English, in eight volumes, by Edward Powys Mathers in 1923. Mardrus became notorious among later scholars for ramping up the erotic content of the stories on the (alleged) authority of a manuscript source which he never showed to anyone, and which probably never existed. Powys Mathers certainly did nothing to tone him down, and he also translated Mather's rhythmic prose versions of the innumerable songs and poems in the collection into beautifully crafted short English verses.
It's therefore hardly surprising that his version has always been so popular with readers, and that more-or-less tastefully illustrated selections have continued to appear from time to time.
Mathers, E. Powys, trans. Arabian Love Tales: Being Romances Drawn from the Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Rendered into English from the Literal French Translation of Dr. J. C. Mardrus. Illustrated by Lettice Sandford. London: The Folio Society, 1949.
Example Six: DAWOOD (1954-1957)
Dawood, N. J., trans. Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. 1954-57. 2nd ed. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.
At much the same time as Campbell was editing the Portable Arabian Nights and the first commercial edition of Powys Mathers' version of Mardrus was coming out from Routledge and Kegan Paul, Penguin Classics decided to get into the game with their own new translation directly from the Arabic.
Dawood, N. J., trans. The Thousand and One Nights: The Hunchback, Sindbad, and Other Tales. Penguin 1001. 1954. Penguin Classics L64. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955.
Dawood, N. J., trans. Aladdin and Other Tales from The Thousand and One Nights. Penguin Classics L71. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957.
Originally issued in two volumes, it was later combined into one, and remains in print to this day. It's beautifully clear, concise, and a delight to read even now, fifty years later - though Penguin have finally decided to supplement it with a complete translation:
Lyons, Malcolm & Ursula, trans. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. Introduction by Robert Irwin. 3 vols. 2008. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2010.
The Penguin Classics' policy of writing in serviceable modern prose, rather than the archaising jargon of earlier translators, make this a not bad one-stop shop for anyone keen to find an accessible and reliable version of the major stories in the Nights.
Example Seven: MAHDI / HADDAWY (1990-1995)
Haddawy, Husain, trans. The Arabian Nights: Based on the Text of the Fourteenth-Century Syrian Manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1990.
Which might be where one could reasonably expect the story to end. Not so, though. Translation doesn't stand still even more than scholarship does. In 1984 a major new edition of the Arabic text of Alf Layla wa Layla [The Thousand Nights and a Night] was published in two volumes by E. J. Brill in Leiden. Its editor, Muhsin Mahdi, claimed that the 144th-century Syrian manuscript used by Galland for his translation in the early eighteenth century was still the best source of information on the true nature of the collection, and that the later, vastly expanded Egyptian compilations used by Lane, Payne and Burton for their translations were of far less interest and significance.
Controversial though this view was (and remains), it was the first real new advance in the textual study of the Nights since the late nineteenth / early twentieth century, and Mahdi's was the first significant new Arabic edition since Macnaghten's in 1839-42. It was promptly - and skilfully - translated into English by Husain Haddawy, and the mere claim that this was the true nucleus of the collection gave an added frisson to his version.
Haddawy, Husain, trans. The Arabian Nights II: Sindbad and Other Popular Stories. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995.
Unfortunately Haddawy rather spoiled the effect by going on to translate some of the more famous (but definitely textually spurious) stories from Galland's collection. it was an almost equally handsome book, though, so only a few purists protested the addition. Since then the major part of Haddawy's two-volume translation has been reprinted as a Norton Critical Edition, together with essays and annotations.
Heller-Roazen, Daniel, ed. The Arabian Nights. The Husain Haddaway Translation Based on the Text Edited by Muhsin Mahdi: Contexts, Criticism. 1990 & 1995. A Norton Critical Edition. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Which is where we'd better leave it, I suppose.
So, if these are the main alternatives:
- Complete reprints: Galland, Lane and Haddawy's translations have all been jammed between one set of covers, with more-or-less of a claim to being "complete."
- Substantial selections: These can be "adult" in nature (Burton or Mardrus / Mathers), or simply a few representative stories (generally those most suitable for children), as in the case of Dawood.
- Complete epitomes: Campbell is the only one to have attempted this to date. His version (I would say) is much admired but little read. Most people would probably prefer to buy one of the complete three or four-volume editions than to have to make do with Campbell's summaries of each story. Folklorists and specialists in Comparative Literature find this approach very valuable, though
Then what of my putative Something-or-Other Book of the Arabian Nights?
I suppose that I had in mind something substantially different from any of these. I thought of a series of chapters or knots of readings grouped around each of the best-known stories: The frame-story (of course), then, the Merchant and the Genie, the Fisherman and the Genie, the Three ladies of Baghdad,and the Story of the Hunchback (together with those some of those later additions Sindbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba, and so on). In some cases I'd give a complete translation (trying to sample from as many as possible). For the longer stories I might give a retelling or even, in some cases, a pastiche or parody. I'd put in notes from major essays by Borges and Barth and Chesterton and the other canonical critics. I'd also put in as many diverse illustrations as possible.
The whole would be topped off with a (select) chronology and bibliography of the Nights.
Will it ever happen? Probably not. It could be a very entertaining - and possibly even an informative - book to read, though. What do the rest of you Nights enthusiasts think?