Arabian Days

I did my undergraduate thesis on Richard Francis Burton‘s translation of A Thousand and One Nights. And today, I practically tripped over a new abridged edition in the local B&N.


Cover: awesome arabesque design; almost looks like a Qur'an.

Author, adventurer, spy, consul, explorer, swordsman, and polyglot extraordinaire (he claimed fluency in 24 languages at one point) Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (d. 1890) holds a position in history amounting to legend. He wrote on extensively on his travels, as well as on such diverse subjects as “swordsmanship, falconry, Indian brothels, mining techniques, Mormons and African geography” (Irwin 28). An agent of the East India Company, his fame reached its peak when he journeying in the disguise of a Persian doctor to the forbidden Muslim precincts of Mecca and Medina during the annual hajj. As an historical figure, he has spawned more speculation, more accusation, and more fascination than most figures of his period, and as one commentator put it, “to try, therefore, to talk briefly about his personality is somewhat presumptuous and is almost bound to convey a false impression” (Just 183).

His translation of the Nights is remarkable: Irwin describes it as an “uncritical collation of a variety of Arabic printed texts and manuscripts, stretched to sixteen volumes and 468 stories,” adding that it is longer than Proust’s taxingly epic A la recherché du temps perdu. It translates the complete corpus of poetry and is the only translation that attempts to register the “rhymed prose” of saj‘ into English—which it does with only partial success. Burton’s edition is very much like Lane’s in that it offers the Nights as an “anthropological” text, but differs in that it does not hold anything back, utilizing a “style estranged with its Spenserian archaism and awkward literalism” (Colligan 32). He uses “a repository for the anthropological notes he had been amassing for years and saw no means of publishing otherwise” (Gerhardt 81) and as a safehouse of his idiosyncrasies, bigotries, and personal anecdotes from his journeys.


From fly leaf: left, Shahryar; right Shahrazad

And perhaps it is for that reason that it continues to be the “authoritative” English edition “that the world now reads, remembers, and quotes” (Rice 457): Burton lathered enough of himself onto the Nights that, in the final analysis, it became his own.

This edition is an interesting one — it’s a short abridged reprint of the most famous stories out of the Nights intended as one of B&N’s “collector’s editions,” complete with faux-leather, embellished cover and color illustrations, which are apparently by Wissen Medgia Verlag, which (as far as I can gather from my nonexistent German) is a publishing company that’s provided the illustrations, which strike me as taking a cue from Persian miniatures (Trigger warning for Muslims: the Wikipedia article contains images of Muhammad and the mir’aj, albeit not showing his face) or Hindi iconography.


The Tale of the Ensorcelled Prince.

What I like about these illustrations is that they seem to evoke the atmosphere of the Nights without becoming caricatures of Middle Eastern culture. Even the book’s typeface is meant to be evocative:


The typeface for the chapter headings evoke Hindi or Sanskrit lettering.

Sadly, one of the most unique (though, let’s be honest: most annoying) aspects of Burton’s translation is the constant repetition and intrusion of the frame sequence. In the original Arabic, the Nights is structured around a narrative of “nights,” rather than complete stories — every page or so, Shahrazad’s storytelling is (ostensibly) interrupted by the dawn breaking (usually at a critical moment or cliffhanger in the story), and she is forced to continue the storytelling the “next night.” Consequently, most stories are broken up into two or three — sometimes more than twenty — “nights.” If you’ve ever tried reading these things out loud, you can understand why the constant interruption is more than a little annoying.

Even so, scholars have argued that this constant interruption is integral to the Nights’ structure because it highlights the main themes of the overarching frame narrative — Shahrazad is telling these stories to save her life from a king who is convinced that wants to kill her. While we can’t reconstruct a complete “canon” (this is a whole other bag of scholarship, but suffice to say that people just kept adding stories to the collection throughout the years, and claimed they were “nights”), the first dozen or so stories have enough similarities to conclude, quite reasonably, that they’re related — and Shahrazad’s constant interruptions point out their common themes: infidelity, distrust of women, interracial anxieties (most of the villains are black djinn or slaves), murder, brothers, redemption, forgiveness.

Burton’s is the only translation to preserve what he called “the narrative apparatus” in full; though in subsequent editions, most editors remove it because of the impatience-inducing factor.




Additionally, the other unique aspect of Burton’s translation is the critical stuff he attaches to the stories — he appends thousands of footnotes, most completely unrelated to the story. It’s amazing; it’s like having an old Indiana Jones (let’s be super-clear: from The Young Indiana Jones, rather than Crystal Skull) ramble and ramble through these already-awesome stories. Sadly, these are not present in this edition, probably because they’re also quite explicit (Burton has a particular obsession with foreign sexual practices — he IS, after all, the first translator of the Kama Sutra)

Note the little star around the page number. That star gradually "sinks" on the pages' edge as you progress through the book. Nifty, huh?

I obviously disapprove of such embellishments as the “fake Arabic” on the front and back covers — though the designer did manage to get the “Allah” and “Muhammad” right. Considering the evocations of Hindi writing and iconography, the arabesques and nods to Islam seem a little unsettling; it seems like the classical conflation of “eastern” cultures that Said railed so long-winded against.

Looks like Arabic. And kind of is (they got the "God" part right). But what is that other stuff?!

In this particular instance, I’d like to pose the loaded question: Is this necessarily a bad thing?

After all, the Nights is a “hybrid text.” We can trace back many of the stories to classical legends out of the Indian subcontinent and Sanskrit animal fables. Wouldn’t conflation be the best thing for a book like this?

There is, after all, another argument; that the Nights isn’t literature in Arabic at all — but only literature in translation.

What makes translation of the text that we know as The Arabian Nights particularly problematic—and arguably, much more interesting—is that the usual questions of “authorial intention” are difficult to place. The Arabic work known as Kitab Hadith Alf Layla wa-Layla (“The Book of the Tales of the Thousand Nights and a Night”) is a collection of folktales—“the oriental equivalent of the Märchen (fairy tales or household tales) of the Brothers Grimm”—meant to entertain coffee-house crowds and festival-goers (Irwin 2), and, like many other works of folklore, is “authored” and “authorless” to a certain extent. In The Art of Story-Telling, Mia Gerhardt has described this problematic process of composition thus:

There have been men who invented the stories and told them, others who told them in their turn, others who wrote them down; other men worked them over and gave them, sometimes, a quite different form, and still others assembled them into volumes. Now all these men who took part in the creating, transmitting, recasting, and compiling of the collection have receded into the mists of time; it is no longer possible to find out anything about them. Here is a book, then, whose author’s name is legion; a book that simply grew, snowball-fashion, at random, until finally the first printed editions settled a more or less fortuitous form of it. (39)

This whole process, in which the story is invented, told, passed on in so many variations, and printed in so many others, presupposes a distinct and singular transmission from each step to the next. Yet the Nights’ genealogy is much more complex and problematic: regions, cities, and neighborhoods, and rawis (professional storytellers) heard and told tales from other cities and made them their own. Rawis varied each tale of the Nights with each telling—embellishing, shortening, lengthening, repeating, and adapting the story to the audience—resulting in a multiplicity of versions that came to exist simultaneously, with no dominant variation. To complicate matters even further, as time passed, more tales were added, some written down, and the collection (or rather, the simultaneously existing numerous and varying collections) grew in various forms and species with texts not present at the time of the “original composition.” This complex textual history makes it extremely difficult to resolve the translator’s typical questions of authorial intent and even determine what the text of the Nights actually is.

The Tale of Sayf al-Muluk

But though this “lack of a single established source text has created problems for all translators so far” (Irwin 13), the obstacle of determining the proper source text in no way impeded the tales’ translation. Nor did the apparent lack of a unifying “author” prevent the Nights’ most famous translators from squabbling over each others’ accuracy—what Borges would later refer to as the “hostile dynasty” of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century translations (34).

Robert Irwin describes:

None of the four versions of the Nights printed in Arabic in the nineteenth century was an edition in the scholarly sense of the word, and here and there in all the printed versions there are passages which, as they stand, are gibberish. Moreover, some of the stories are not all that well written; they are unpolished, and their grammar is imperfect. (13-14)

Irwin points out that the four primary Arabic source texts of the nineteenth century were of poor quality: written in an Arabic dialect that is neither wholly classical nor completely colloquial, the Nights’ relative “artlessness” (when compared to contemporary Arabic works of, say, the fourteenth century) has led many Arab scholars to turn their noses up at them. Furthermore, the irregular content—a Chaucerian grab-bag of animal fables, high romance, toilet humor, and pornography—has led others to declare them “good enough media for the amusement and instruction of the ignorant and frivolous, and of women and children, but seldom considered sufficiently dignified for the serious attention of reputable litterateurs and scholars” (Abbott 64).

Why, then, were they translated? If this was such a scrap pile of dialect and craziness?

Because the West loved the Nights. Ate it up. It was different, it captured the imagination. It was exotic in that most stolid of times: the Victorian era. Because people got obsessed with the Nights, and because they were the Victorian version of an Internet meme. And like memes, they just keep getting more elaborate, more embellished, more complex. And publishing a translation was a money-making machine — that was a big deal. Any number of things.

Even today, the Nights aren’t really taken “seriously” in the Middle East; sure, they have an impact, and they’re well known. But calling the Arabic version literature is like saying that Little Red Riding Hood or Sleeping Beauty is literature — sure, they’re present in the cultural consciousness, and there’s no denying their impact, but there’s no single “canonical” version to nail down and declare a “masterpiece.” There is no author. There is only the story. And that is fascinating and incredibly cool.

But I don’t think one can deny that Burton’s edition, despite its flaws and idiosyncrasies, is literature. Eliot owned a copy. Joyce owned a copy and wove elements of the Nights through Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses. Jorge Luis Borges practically wrote a love song to Burton’s edition in his essay on the Nights. You can see specifically Burtonian elements of the Nights filter down through the works of these men in our tradition.

And I will have to pick me up one of these copies, if just for the awesome illustrations and manifestations of the Nights’ unique paradigm.

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