- Beautiful Infidels: The Western Travels of The Arabian Nights
According to the story, sometime before the year 1700, a scholar of Oriental languages and former diplomatic attaché in Constantinople, Antoine Galland, acquired a manuscript containing tales about a sailor named Sindbad. He translated and published them in 1701, and in that same year received information (now considered erroneous) that this manuscript was part of a larger collection, one called Alf Layla wa Layla [The Thousand and One Nights]. He acquired that as well, and began working on a translation that would eventually reach twelve volumes. He published the first six volumes from 1704 to 1706 (inserting the Sindbad story, seemingly indiscriminately, in volume three), but at the end of the sixth volume, the translation began to take an obscure turn. In this volume, he supplemented the story of “Qamar al-Zamān” with content from an unidentified manuscript, and then after returning to the original manuscript to complete volume seven, he had run out of story.
Perhaps convinced, like many of the translators and copyists who would come after him, that there were literally a thousand and one nights in the original manuscript—or perhaps only pressured by his publisher—Galland sought to fill out the remaining nights by seeking out supplemental manuscripts, “complete” editions, and eventually oral narratives. Volume eight, published in 1709 without his permission, included two stories intended for Pétis de la Croix’s 1710 Les Mille et un jour. And the remaining volumes (1712–17) were compiled from stories received from an oral source: “Hanna, maronite d’Halep.” These include several of what have become the most emblematic stories of the collection, such as the [End Page 434] story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The story of Aladdin, Arabist scholars now believe, with its morphology closer to French fairy tales than to the rest of the Arabic collection, and the obscurity of the references to it in Galland’s diaries, was of Galland’s own creation. Therefore, those stories most associated with popular conceptions of the Nights were more likely pseudotranslations than translations, having no known Arabic original.
Thus began the Nights’ life in European languages. Galland’s translation— which even when it followed the source text included omissions, amendments, and additions—and its Grub Street English version initiated a long and still ongoing history of compromised translation, forgery, and literary creation between East and West. As Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum, the editors of The Arabian Nights in Historical Context, argue, this is a history that binds the Arabic and European literary traditions, and in which the line between translation and pseudotranslation is difficult to discern. Muhsin Mahdi’s 1984 critical edition has pared the manuscript traditions down to the earliest ur-text, but as Robert Irwin suggests in The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994), it can do so only by emphasizing stylistic conformity, treating the collection as if it were created by a single author. This approach is opposed to one that treats the Nights as being, as Ibn al-Nadīm listed it in his tenth-century catalog, “a book with no author,” accreted in oral tradition between India and Persia before being transcribed in Arabic. The originality of an “original” manuscript may be only a historical fantasy.
Makdisi and Nussbaum argue in their introduction that this “vertiginously unstable text” nonetheless “helped to inspire literary and ultimately cultural revolutions among the rising European powers” (1). They assert, provocatively, that “Alf Layla wa layla changed the world on a scale unrivaled by any other literary text,” via numerous translations as well as hundreds of imitations, adaptations, and Oriental-style fictions (1). Their ambitious introduction outlines the contours of that change, and sets a program for using these imaginative Orientalist fictions to revise theories of Orientalism. Makdisi and Nussbaum emphasize the unevenness and discontinuity of Europe’s engagement...