- The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights
Do we really need yet another retranslation of the famous Arabic story collection Alf layla wa-layla (A Thousand Nights and a Night, or simply, 1001 Nights), better known in English as the Arabian Nights? After all, readers of English already have access to a wealth of different translations, from the Grub Street prints contemporary with Galland's first-ever French translation at the beginning of the eighteenth century, via the "complete" translations made directly from the Arabic by such eminent scholars as Edward William Lane (1839) and Richard Burton (1885), the latter largely dependent on John Payne's earlier version (1882-84), to Powys Mathers's (1937) still widely read English rendering of Joseph Charles Victor Mardrus's imaginative French version (1899-1904), N. J. Dawood's selection of "the finest and best-known tales in contemporary English" (1973: 10), and Husain Haddawy's English translation (1990) of the (fragmentary) Galland manuscript as edited by Muhsin Mahdi (1992).
Is there an advantage gained by yet another translation of "all the stories found in the Arabic text of Calcutta II" (vol. 1, vii). A striking response to this question is the evaluation of T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), as recently quoted in Paul M. Nurse's Eastern Dreams (2010: 207): "Payne crabbed: Burton unreadable: Lane pompous"—to which one could add for Mardrus/Mathers: "stunningly pretentious" (208), and for both Dawood and Haddawy: not complete. As a matter of fact, up to the present day and notwithstanding the plethora of existing translations, English readers have not had access to a readable version of the complete text of the Nights in modern English as translated directly from the Arabic. This situation alone should suffice to justify the new translation, a translation that is, in fact, all the more needed to convey to English readers an impression of the text of the Nights that would be as close to the Arabic original as possible. Rather than rendering the Nights in translation, [End Page 110] many of the previous translators, and in particular Lane, Burton, and Mardrus/ Mathers, offered their interpretation—interpretations that more often than not resulted from a reaction to the contemporary circumstances of its production.
Translating the complete Nights is a time-consuming matter that needs both the expertise of a scholar well versed in the language of the original text, a peculiar form of "middle Arabic," and the dedication of a translator willing to spend years of his or her life to produce the translation of a work that here runs up to more than 2,500 pages. Clearly, not many scholars would have been capable of producing this massive work. And so it is a stroke of luck for the English-language audience that Malcolm C. Lyons burdened himself with this enormous task.
Lyons is professor emeritus of Pembroke College, Cambridge University, and a scholar who—besides being trained in classical Arabic language and literature—is probably best known to folklorists for his equally massive and highly detailed three-volume study The Arabian Epic: Heroic and Oral Story Telling (1995). Lyons translated the Nights, as did Burton, from the edition known as Calcutta II (1839-42), which is commonly regarded as more reliable than the earlier Bulaq I (1835) that formed the basis of Lane's version. Lyons's translation is straightforward, modern, and readable and in particular avoids the antiquated biblical diction that Burton used to authenticate his vision of the Nights as a "traditional" text of Arabic literature. Meanwhile, Lyons's erudition is probably responsible for his recourse to clinical diction ("vagina," "vulva," "penis") in the notoriously known frivolous passages, such as the one in the story of the Porter and the Three Ladies, or his simple avoidance of translating the Arabic terms (zubb, air) for the male member altogether (vol. 1, 56-57).
Were it Jorge Luis Borges—or, for that matter, German-language fin de siècle writer...