Tag Archive for translations

Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Translations of 1001 Nights

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

Okay, I saved this in my “Notes” while doing research last year but I cannot find the original source. This is more than a little upsetting considering how awesome the short snippet I saved is. In January, I wrote a “Book Secrets” about which 1001 Nights to read and highlighted that the translations had all come from one of two sources.  What I didn’t get in to was the difference between the translations.

The text below shows a few lines taken from the different translations of 1001 Nights.  It is eye-opening to see the difference, not just in text, but in the context it gives.  I knew the Burton version was misogynistic, racist, and colonialist but I never realized exactly how horrible it was prior to seeing it laid out for me line by damning line.

Arabic original (Calcutta II manuscript):  فلما كان في نصف الليل تذكر حاجة نسيها في قصره فرجع ودخل قصره فوجد زوجته راقدة في فراشها معانقة عبداً أسود من بعض  لعبيد فلما رأى لهذا الأمر أسودت الدنيا في وجهه

Gloss translation of Arabic: ‘When it was in the middle of the night he remembered something he had forgotten in his palace, so he returned and entered his palace finding his wife laying in her bed embracing one of the black slaves, and seeing this, the world became black in his face.’

Edward William Lane (1838-1840): ‘At midnight, however, he remembered that he had left in his palace an article which he should have brought with him; and having returned to the palace to fetch it, he there beheld his wife sleeping in his bed, and attended by a male negro slave, who had fallen asleep by her side. On beholding this scene, the world became black before his eyes.’

John Payne (1882–4): ‘In the middle of the night, it chanced that he bethought him of some-what he had forgotten in his palace; so he returned thither privily and entered his apartments, where he found his wife asleep in his own bed, in the arms of one of his black slaves. When he saw this, the world grew black in his sight …’

Richard Burton (1885-1888): ‘But when the night was half spent he bethought him that he had forgotten in his palace somewhat which he should have brought with him, so he returned privily and entered his apartments, where he found the Queen, his wife, asleep on his own carpet-bed, embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime. When he saw this the world waxed black before his sight . . .’ (2001: 5)

“of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime” ???  Where the **** did that come from? One could even have assumed, from the earlier translations, that she was sleeping with the slave because he was a comely youth.  Why would she sleep with someone loathsome and foul?!

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: http://mairangibay.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-translation-of-arabian-nights.html. 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.