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"Esoteric Pornography": Sir Richard Burton's Arabian Nights and the Origins of Pornography Colette Colligan Translations, especially from the Latin and French, were the mainstay of the nineteenth-century English trade in obscenity. Toward the end of the century, obscene translations of Indian and Arab texts emerged at the instigation of Sir Richard Burton (1821-90). Burton was renowned during his time as a traveler, explorer, orientalist , anthropologist, writer, linguist, and translator. Although a committed imperialist, he was also fascinated with Arab culture. He is still remembered for his covert pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Moslem, a disguise he refined by having himself circumcised (McLynn 74). He is best remembered, however, for his translation of The Book of the ThousandNights andOne Night and SupplementalNights — commonly known as the Arabian Nights (1885-87). This was just one of many translations that he published through the Kama Shastra Society, the underground press with false headquarters in Cosmopoli and Benares that he founded with F. F. Arbuthnot and Richard Monckton-Milnes along the lines of the Oriental Translation Fund (Wright 86), but with the primary purpose of publishing erotic and semi-erotic Indian and Arab texts. When Burton first published his translation of theArabian Nights in 1885, it outraged the English literary community. This collection of Arabic tales (AlfLaylah WaLaylah), which had been circulating in the West since the eighteenth century, had long been familiar and cherished. The romantic and adventuresome stories told night after night by Queen Scheherazade to her husband had already captivated the imagination of SamuelJohnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Victorian Review (2002)3 1 C. Colligan the Brontës. Antoine Galland first introduced the Arabic text to Europeans with his adapted French translation of LesMille et Une Nuits (1704-17). After Galland's translation, many eighteenth-century editions followed, both in French and English. In the nineteenth century, three important English editions preceded Burton's: Edward Lane's bowdlerised drawing-room translation (1839-41), Thomas Dalziel's illustrated edition (1863-65), and John Payne's complete and scholarly translation (1882-84). Lane's was a popular edition, but Payne's was a private edition restricted to 500 copies for subscribers. Burton, who had been working on his translation of the Arabian Nights for thirty years (Nights l.ix), decided to profit from Payne's remaining subscribers. From 1885-86, he privately printed through the Kama Shastra Society 1,000 copies of his own ten-volume translation entitled The Book of the ThousandNightsandOne Nightand sold the set to subscribers for a prohibitive ten guineas (Nights 16.390). From 1886-87, he printed an additional six volumes under the title SupplementalNights. Like Payne's translation, Burton's was a "plain and literal one," yet shockingly different from all previous English translations . The language was lurid and coarse and the style estranging with its Spenserian archaism and awkward literalism. Long familiar tales from the nursery and schoolroom, like that of the Baghdad Porter, now included awful scenes of sexual violence. It was in his footnotes, however, that Burton's translation especially set itself apart from other translations. These footnotes, accompanied by a full scholarly apparatus (Foreword, Terminal Essay, Appendix, and Index), offered a "panorama of Eastern Life" (Ali 115) that incorporated strange anthropological observations on Arab sexual practices such as bestiality , sodomy, eunuchism, clitoridectomy, and miscegenation. His note on Arab women's lust for black men is an infamous example of the commentary he appended to the text: Debauched women prefer Negroes on account of the size of their parts. I measured one man in Somali-land who, when quiescent, numbered nearly six inches. This is a characteristic of the Negro race and of African animals; [. . .] whereas the pure Arab, man and beast, is below the average of Europe; 32volume 28 number 2 "Esoteric Pornography" one of the best proofs by and by, that the Egyptian is not an Asiatic, but a Negro partially whitewashed. [ . . .] In my time no honest hindi Moslem would take his womenfolk to Zanzibar on account of the huge attractions and enormous temptations there are thereby offered to them. (In6) Although the Arabian Nights already possessed exotic and sexual appeal in England before Burton's translation, his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 31-64
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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