For hundreds of years, has been romanticised, bowdlerised and sanitised, yet the allure of the Oriental tales endures, writes Robert Irwin
editions in Arabic was published in Cairo, Breslau and Calcutta. The most compendious is known as Calcutta II or the MacNaghten edition. Like the Cairo and Breslau editions, Calcutta II contains far more stories than the Galland manuscript. Because of the way some stories lead into other stories, and stories frame others, which contain yet others, it is difficult to say exactly how many stories are in Calcutta II, but the number is more than 640.
In the 18th century, English readers made do with what is known as the Grub Street translation of Galland’s French. It was the Grub Street version that inspired and delighted Addison, Walpole, Wordsworth, Coleridge and many others. Then, in the 19th century, English translations were made from the printed Arabic editions. The history of those translations is one of pedantry, pretension and plagiarism.
In 1838-41, Edward William Lane published a translation of some of the Cairo version, but as he was pious and prudish, he cut out sexual scenes and omitted a lot of stories as unfit for gentlefolk. Piety also led him to model his prose on that of the Authorised Version of the Bible, but he succeeded only in reproducing the archaism of his model without matching its eloquence. Also, as he earnestly intended his translation to serve as a guide to the manners and customs of contemporary Egyptians, his text served as a pretext for hundreds of pages of ethnographic notes.
In 1882-84 John Payne published a much more literary translation of Calcutta II in which the sexual episodes were kept in but played down. Payne, a self-taught polyglot who published translations from Latin, French and Portuguese, translated the Nights while riding around London on the top deck of a horsedrawn omnibus. Unfortunately, it is abominably affected and almost unreadable.
When, in 1885-88, that bold traveller and scoundrel Richard Burton produced his version of the Nights , he plagiarised Lane and Payne. His weird vocabulary makes him even more unreadable. Burton also exaggerated the eroticism and violence and added a mass of unnecessary footnotes, many dealing with race or sex.
Lane’s translation did not sell well. Burton’s and Payne’s editions were for private subscribers only. In the 19th century, most English readers stuck with the Grub Street Nights .
In 1899-1904, Joseph Charles Mardrus, egged on by his friend and patron, poet Stephane Mallarme, produced what purported to be a new French translation of an Arabic manuscript. His translation was really a fraud. Where he was translating stories in the Nights , his renderings were deformed by obvious errors and eccentric translation strategies. But he brought in stories from other collections and cultures and seems to have made up stories himself. Although his version has no scholarly merit, it has some literary value and his version inspired Yeats, Proust, Gide and James Elroy Flecker, as well as the Ballets Russes version of Scheherazade .
Previous English translations have dated badly and, insofar as English speakers know the stories, their knowledge mostly comes from pantomime and film. Aladdin was first staged in 1811. Versions of Ali Baba and Sinbad followed. Although these were, strictly speaking, classified as Oriental spectacles, burlesque and pantomime versions evolved later in the 19th century.
In turn, the earliest film versions of the Nights , including Thomas Edison’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves ( 1902) and Ferdinand Zecca’s Aladdin or the Marvellous Lamp ( 1906), were modelled on pantomimes.
The Nights has inspired some fine films, notably the Douglas Fairbanks silent version of The Thief of Baghdad ( 1924), Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed ( 1926) and Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad ( 1940), on which Michael Powell worked. But Pasolini’s Il Fiore Delle Mille e Una Notte ( 1974) is the most faithful and intelligent adaptation, while the Disney Aladdin ( 1992), with Robin Williams as the wisecracking genie, is perhaps the most enjoyable.
Pasolini’s version apart, these films were aimed at children and a small selection of Nights stories suitable for children survive in the popular consciousness. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights is freshly translated from Calcutta II by Malcolm Lyons ( with translations from the French of some of the orphan stories by Ursula Lyons). Its aim is to reinstate the work as literature, to present it once again to an adult readership, and to make it once more a pleasure to read these marvellous stories. The Independent Middle East specialist Robert Irwin is editor of the Penguin Classics edition of The Arabian Nights and wrote The Arabian Nights: A Companion. A three-volume presentation set of The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights is published by Penguin ($ 275).