Bed­time sto­ries

For hun­dreds of years, has been ro­man­ti­cised, bowd­lerised and sani­tised, yet the al­lure of the Ori­en­tal tales en­dures, writes Robert Ir­win

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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).

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