by Gregory Frost
In 1984, Muhsin Mahdi published a definitive translation of the fourteenth–century Syrian text that Galland had used in the eighteenth century for his work.Mahdi made repairs where necessary but didn’t embellish as his predecessors had done, producing the most accurate version of the core stories to date. At the center of this edition are tales involving the historicalfigures of Caliph Hвrыn al–Rashоd and his wise vizier, Ja-far.
Six years later, Husain Haddawy carefully translated Mahdi’s work into English, thereby providing us with the most comprehensible and approachable edition yet of the Nights. It is great reading, without the overly embellishedand convoluted prose that graces most of the other translations.
Haddawy supports the position of Mahdi’s that the tales in the Syrian manuscript alone comprise the true Alf Laylah wa Laylah, and that the rest can either be dismissed as augmentations or, as with "The Story of Qamar al–Zaman and His Two Sons," fragments.
While this is all undoubtedly true, it seems to me that it’s only a valid assessment from the perspective of a strict purist. That is, yes, we should be aware that such a proto–collection of stories exists, but that should not diminish our pleasure in reading all the other tales — the Sinbads,the ‘Ala al–Din, the ‘Ali Baba, and so forth. Haddawy himself bears this out in that a few years after rendering the Mahdi translation in English, he published a companion volume of four of the more familiar Arabian Nights augmentations.
At last we discover that the puzzle has no single absolute form and never did. Somehow this seems most appropriate.
The Nights have flamed the imaginations of writers and poets since the moment Antoine Galland set them down in French four hundred years ago. Contemporary writers such as Barth and Borges and Byatt continue to be charged by them. A Thousand and One Nights have lasted a thousand times that.I expect that clever Shahrazâd will still be unfolding her tales and watching for the dawn a thousand years hence.