Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Which 1001 Nights?

Notes from my time writing “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn” and fun tidbits.

So, I’m in the middle of writing a steampunk version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. That sounds simple enough, yes?  Read the original, consider what points to keep and then build it into a steampunk frame.  The question becomes which Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves?  Over the years, there have been several versions of Kitab Alf Layla wa Layla (Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night), seven of them in English, and they all vary significantly.  And then, several of the English translations came from earlier French translations.  And of course, there is also the question of which “Arabian Nights” to translate from.  There are in fact, two “original” written versions:

  1. On the one hand, there’s the 14th-century Syrian Ms. Galland, which the Frenchman Antoine Galland used for his pioneering multi-volumed translation of 1704-1717. This was the form in which the collection first reached Europe, and the choices Galland made in making his rather free adaptation of the materials available to him have had a huge influence ever since. It was he, for example, who chose to incorporate Sinbad the Sailor (originally from a quite different text) into the Thousand and One Nights. It was he who, forced to supply the insatiable demand of his public for more volumes of stories (rather like an eighteenth-century J. K. Rowling), collected “Ali Baba,” “Aladdin” and various other stories from the oral recitations of a visiting Lebanese Christian (the Arabic texts of the stories discovered later turned out to have been adapted from Galland’s French, rather than the other way round).

  2. On the other hand, there’s Z.E.R. [Zotenberg’s Egyptian Recension – named for the French scholar who first identified this separate manuscript tradition in the late 1880s]. This forms the basis of most of the “complete” versions of the Nights – i.e. containing 1001 actual nights of storytelling. It was once thought to be the original from which Galland’s incomplete version was extracted, but unfortunately it turns out that the traffic was actually the other way. ZER arose in Egypt largely as a result of the demands of Westerners, brought up on Galland’s elegant fairy-tale version of the Arabic tales, for a fuller and more comprehensively “Oriental” version of the whole collection. The 1835 Bulaq edition (printed in Cairo), and the 1839-42 Macnaghten edition (printed in Calcutta by the British East India Company) are the two essential versions of this text. Opinions differ greatly on which of the two is preferable – Macnaghten is fuller, but also contains a lot more editorial interference (though probably not by William Hay Macnaghten himself, who was killed in the British retreat from Kabul in 1841).

Lots more great information like the above is available from Dr. Jack Ross’ page: He highlights the many definitive (if any one can be considered definitive) publications of 1001 Nights that are available as well as provides commentary on the translations and translators.  I particularly loved the quote: “Galland for the nursery; Lane for the library; Payne for the study; and Burton for the gutter.”

image description 1001Lane1001PayneCampbell





Just digging through my own collection, I found a Payne, two Burtons, and a Dawood (the Penguin 2-volume version). The Lyon’s edition is going on my Amazon Wishlist.