Revealed: The incredible stories behind the stories of Arabian Nights


Revealed: The incredible stories behind the stories of Arabian Nights

In his new book, professor Paulo Lemos Horta of New York University, Abu Dhabi, chronicles the intriguing stories behind the many translations of Arabian Nights

By Anamika Chatterjee

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 18 Aug 2017, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 25 Aug 2017, 10:06 AM

Arabian Nights has been one of the most celebrated works in world literature.and also one of its most complex projects. While there has been enough evidence to argue for the former, the latter has largely been an untold story. One that New York University Abu Dhabi professor Paulo Lemos Horta examines with great depth in his book Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights (published by Harvard University Press and Penguin)! A compilation of Arabic folk tales, 1001 Nights, as it is famously called, has had numerous translations, most notable and definitive one being published in French in the early 18th century by Antoine Galland. Having travelled across the Levant, the French orientalist was already well-acquainted with the oral tales that were central to Arabian Nights. It is said that, in 1709, Galland met Hanna Diyab, a Maronite monk from Aleppo, Syria, who provided him with more culturally authentic tales, seven of which made their way to Galland's seminal work, including Aladdin and Ali Baba and Forty Thieves. Over the years, as the popularity of Arabian Nights soared, it inspired the literary ambition of translating the monumental work into many languages. In their efforts to make the work culturally accessible, many translators relied on cultural exchanges with the Arab world. Horta's book pays tribute to the seemingly marginal figures who have played a definitive role in making Arabian Nights a classic. As an author, Horta directs his lens at five key figures who translated Arabian Nights and examines their sources, motivations, narrative decisions; chief among them being Galland; a British army officer stationed in India, Henry Torrens; travel writer Edward Lane; pre-Raphaelite poet John Payne; and the English explorer Richard Burton. In a conversation with WKND, Horta talks about the need to acknowledge the many voices that went behind penning the tome.
What led you to embark on this project?
Ali Baba... and Aladdin were the first stories my Brazilian mother, an orphan from the city of Belém, ever told me, and I was flabbergasted to discover that these did not possess original texts in Arabic. Early success in finding overlooked or unknown sources for figures such as Richard Burton persuaded me that the pieces to the puzzle of how Aladdin and Ali Baba... came to be added to the Arabian Nights were out there, tantalisingly close. And so it proved. What fascinated me was the imprint in the notebooks (and manuscripts of famous cosmopolitan figures like Burton) of the travellers, servants, guides, translators, language tutors and interpreters. Research and writing in Istanbul, London, Paris and Abu Dhabi, I was constantly reminded of the many geographical spaces that were a part of the creation of what we now know as the Arabian Nights - and that any study has to include the British colonial context in India. I wanted to do justice to the many overlooked voices that contributed to famous tales like Aladdin and Ali Baba..., as well as the innumerable anecdotes and observations that were added in the commentary.
How did these western influences impact the essence of the Arabian Nights?
The tales added in Antoine Galland's French translation are marvelous both in the sense of riches and the supernatural. The original core of Arabic tales often feature merchants who covet wealth, but the tales added by Galland - based on the oral storytelling sessions by the young Syrian traveller Hanna Diyab - are more sensitive to the perspective of the poor, the vulnerable, the outsiders and young people. In many cases, the tales added in French exhibit the psychology of modern characters and this is typically attributed to the French translator Galland, but the stories also reflect Diyab's empathy. In the account of his time in Paris in his own memoir, Diyab exhibits an interest in the plight of famine victims and condemned prisoners. In his journals, Galland does not even mention the food riots that occurred in his neighbourhood during the winter of 1709.
Would you say history has been unkind to Diyab's contribution to Arabian Nights?
A few years ago, an Oxford University Press book questioned the existence of Diyab, suggesting he was an invention of Galland in his Parisian diary. That dismissal only encapsulates a common assumption in French scholarship on Galland, which assumes Diyab could only have supplied rudimentary outlines that Galland transformed into full-fledged works of literature. There is no doubt that Galland deserves his place in French and world literary history, and the style of his translation is rightly admired. But we should be able to hold both ideas in our head at the same time - that Diyab is the first recorded storyteller to combine the distinct elements that made Ali Baba... into a new tale, and that Galland is responsible for the final product, a highly stylised story adapted to the taste of a French readership.
In the book, you note that much of Burton's translation drew from Payne's, to the point of it being plagiarised. What are the factors that helped him market his version better?
I think the recently deposited, previously private material at the British Library pertaining to Burton's Arabian Nights makes it irrefutable that he plagiarised at least some of his version from Payne. In fact, it corroborates what one sees elsewhere, at the Beinecke Library at Yale and the Huntington Library in California. I also found documents mislabelled as 'proofs' of Burton's Arabian Nights at the British Library, which were, in fact, Payne's translation with Burton's overwriting. At some point, the weight of the evidence is hard to dismiss.
A lawyer by trade, Payne had his own gift for marketing, evading censorship laws of the time by privately circulating his work to subscribers. But this scheme had one flaw: by not officially publishing, he had no way of asserting copyright over his version, leaving himself open to plagiarism. And the underlying problem, as he recognised in the poem he wrote in homage to Burton, was that he had no experience of "the untravelled East". Nor is it clear how he could've mastered Arabic in three or four years without the benefit of travel, proper books or an exceptional tutor.
In contrast, Burton was a famous explorer. He fascinated the bohemian crowd of late Victorian England- including Bram Stoker, who may have borrowed the line of his jaw for his sketch of Dracula. The force of his personality and his fearsome reputation as a debater was enough to solidify his claim. Burton was, as has been documented, a real celebrity in his time, a hero in counter-cultural and bohemian circles.
A fascinating aspect of Marvellous Thieves is your engagement with characters that have traditionally remained peripheral. As a researcher, were you more fascinated by these characters than the actual translators?
The translators deserve their status as objects of fascination and biography. For instance, Lane is notable for achieving a remarkable degree of acculturation in Cairo and expressing genuine empathy for Egyptian Arab culture. But his close friend and guide in these endeavours, Osman Effendi, a Scottish soldier captured and converted to Islam by his Ottoman masters, has no less fascinating a history. After earning his freedom, he served a vital role in guiding expatriate travellers through the intricacies of Egyptian life.
On the other hand, however fascinating a figure Burton is as an explorer, it should not obscure the primacy of an overlooked figure like Henry Torrens, the first translator of the 1001 Nights from Arabic to English. As a young colonial officer, he was pressed into the service of causes - most importantly, the imposition of English as the language of education and bureaucracy - that he did not believe in. Not only did he satirise the new language policy in India under a pseudonym, but his work on the 1001 Nights and his support for the publication of the text in Arabic was part of a local effort to resist this English turn in Indian history. Torrens was passionate about a free press in India as a check on colonial authority. As a secretary to the governor during the crucial events that led to the failed first British occupation of Kabul, he played a greater role in historical events than Burton, for all his flamboyant exploits, ever did. This lay at the heart of Burton's envy of a man only 10 years his senior with whom he overlapped in Indian colonial circles in the 1840s.
The appeal of Hanna Diyab - a youth who left his home in Aleppo at the beginning of the 18th century to travel through the Mediterranean - is undeniable. We may regard the Arabian Nights tales as 'anonymous,' but some of the most influential of these stories in world letters and cinema in Paris or Mumbai or Cairo (Ali Baba..., Aladdin, Prince Ahmad) are, in part, a product of Diyab's imagination. Galland's notes in his diary from Diyab's oral performances of storytelling represent the first known performance of certain tales. That speaks for Diyab's qualities as a true co-author of these tales with Galland, not just a peripheral player who happened to supply Galland with raw material.
Galland, Torrens, Payne, Lane or Burton - whose translation has done greatest justice to the work?
Among existing translations, I am partial to the unfinished translation that Torrens prepared in India. He had the advantage of being gifted at different genres of writing and could translate in a wider variety of registers - from the satirical to the historical or the lyrical. The other translators tended to be good at drawing out a particular quality of the tales: romance (Galland and Payne), magic (Lane), black comedy (Burton). I think English has not yet been rewarded by a stylist as fine as Galland or J.C. Mardrus in French. If you ask me which is the best version of the Arabian Nights in English, my answer would be that it is yet to be published.
Would you say the book is also a commentary on the problems of literary translation?
I see my book as a commentary on the myths of single authorship, and on the need to recognise the many hands at work in most influential of tales. Much of what we think of as translation - take the case of Burton's Arabian Nights -is rewriting. We need to be attentive to the real practice of translators, which is only identifiable through use of private papers and archives. In addition, what we value most about these classic translations are often the added notes, the commentary, the accretions - which turn out to be a product of these fascinating cross-cultural collaborations.

More news from