The Arabian Nights (Continued)

by Gregory Frost

II. Translations

So one fourteenth–century manuscript survived. But nothing was done with it until it wound up in the hands of a Frenchman, early in the eighteenth century.

France had just undergone its first love affair with what we now call fairy tales. Over the past few decades, the salon society of Madame Marie–Catherine d’Aulnoy, Mlle. L’Héritier, Charles Perrault (Mlle. L’Héritier’s uncle), and others had produced an incredible and increasingly popular body of contes de fee — fairy stories.These stories had circulated in the salons for about fifty years before being published. By the close of the seventeenth century, they were well documented, the salons in which they’d been created had run their course, and most of the women who’d fashioned tales such as "Rapunzel" and "Sleeping Beauty" were dead. France needed a new enchantment.

In 1704, a scholar named Antoine Galland provided it when he published the first edition of his translation of the Alf Laylah wa Laylah. Galland’s source was that fourteenth–century Syrian manuscript, now considered to be the most authentic and least enhanced we have. It resides today in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Galland had a remarkable gift for language. He was fluent in Turkish, Greek, Arabic and Persian, making him in many ways the perfect translator for this body of work. Nevertheless, he did not simply translate the manuscript, but made alterations and revisions in order to create his own version of it that he deemed suitable for the French public. He must have understood very well what his public wanted, because the book became a sensation,fueling a second phase in the French celebration of the fairy tale, and an even broader fascination with all things Middle Eastern. Curiously, while it received enormous popular acclaim, the book was ignored critically at the time.

Everything that happened to the Nights subsequently describes a phenomenon limited to European civilization. For, while numerous Arabic translations followed in the next century, the culture from which the stories sprang did not hold them in any particular esteem. Its celebration has been largely a Western event, part of what has been called an "Oriental Renaissance."

Within a few years of its publication, there was an English translation of Galland’s interpretation, and soon other "translations" of these translations appeared. Some were frauds in imitation of the style or substance of the tales. But even the second–rate translations proved inspiring to a generation of artists and poets. As Husain Haddawy puts it: "The Nights could shine in the dark."

That’s what they had to do in the century following Galland.

Subsequent English translators of the stories — Edward Lane, John Payne, and Sir Richard Burton — did not abide by the fourteenth–century Syrian manuscript that Galland had used. By the time Lane created his version, in 1839, a variety of reconfigured Arabic translations had appeared to muddy the waters.

The first of these, known as the first Calcutta edition and finished in 1818, combined the core tales arbitrarily with other stories, and in an elevated language that was supposed to make them more literary, more valid. The editor of the Calcutta edition probably deleted as much as he added.

The next edition, the Breslau, combined the Syrian with Egyptian stories, and appeared in eight volumes between 1824 and 1843. As I’ve already mentioned, the Egyptians had gone to some lengths to complete those thousand nights, and so the Breslau proved larger than the first Calcutta edition, filling a total of eight volumes.

After that came the Bulaq, based entirely on an Egyptian rendering, and once again edited so as to embellish, cut, and "improve" the quality of the language but conflating the tales with other stories. This was followed by a second Calcutta edition in 1842, which had multiple editors who again saw fit to clean it up, reinterpret, and play havoc with the tales.

No doubt the creators of these editions meant well in their endeavors to fix up and polish the stories. But they had in effect taken the pieces of our puzzle and drawn new pictures on them.

The English translators made matters worse. Lane expurgated the tales, removing what he considered to be inappropriate material. He used the first Calcutta, Breslau, and Bulaq translations, mixing in whichever stories he chose while overlooking others altogether. Payne relied on the second Calcutta and the Breslau for his work, and similarly cut and pasted from them. For his, Burton used the Bulaq, second Calcutta,and Breslau. He sought to unexpurgate the tales, filling his pages with an involved gloss on sexual and social practices of the Arab world as he perceived them, and also complicating the language with his own magniloquence. None of these gentlemenattempted to compare the various translations and determine from such comparison what might and might not legitimately be considered part of the Nights. Instead, they mixed and matched according to their own preferences and prejudices. What we’re left with is a hodgepodge of Nights, where — depending on whose version you read — stories are mistranslated, misrepresented, bowdlerized, embellished, or left out altogether.

In the introduction to his translation of the Mahdi edition of the fourteenth–century Syrian manuscript (which we’ll come back to shortly), Husain Haddawy gives numerous examples representative of the problems encountered even in the most well–intentioned texts. The Arabic language, he points out, depends upon diacritical marks and punctuation for proper interpretation and meaning. The translations upon which the Englishtranslators based their editions had left out most if not all of these marks, thus rendering some phrases open to arbitrary interpretation and others impossible to comprehend at all. In instances where the translators couldn’t fathom the meaning,they often excised the phrase or sentence altogether. Try lopping a few sentences randomly from one of your own favorite stories and see how much sense it then makes.

For example, he says, the verb "to overtake" also means "to realize." Burton mistook the one for the other, and thus rendered the phrase "But morning overtook Shahrazâd and she lapsed into silence" as "And Shahrazâd perceived the dawn of the day and ceased saying her permitted say." Not a terrible mistranslation, except that it’s repeated night after night after night throughout the work. Other, larger errors have a much greater impact upon the tales.

Haddawy does credit the English translators for doing as well as they did under the circumstances: Between them Burton, Lane, and Payne managed to assemble a remarkable amount of the puzzle.

Other translations followed on theirs, right up into the twentieth century, but produced less satisfactory results.