20 Dec 2009 08:28 pm
mtvessel: (Default)
Jun 2009
The Arabian Nights - tr. Husain Haddawy - Norton, 1995
* * * *
The original twelfth century Syrian manuscript of The Arabian Nights would make a good subject for the General Ignorance section of QI. For a start, there are only 271 nights, not 1001. Secondly, the stories that most people associate with it - Sinbad, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp - do not appear. The reason is interesting and says a lot about western attitudes to Arab culture. Aladdin and Ali Baba were added in the eighteenth century by the first western translator of the Arabic text, Antoine Galland, based on stories he had heard from a Syrian Christian called Hanna Diab. To be fair he was simply following in the footsteps of some Ethiopian copyists who had also supplemented the original with stories from other sources (Sinbad is one of these), but even so it shows a lack of respect for the text that would not be tolerated nowadays. Worse, later scholars translated Galland's French versions of the added stories back into Arabic and passed them off as originals. Academic fraud, it seems, is nothing new.

Translations into English were not much better, veering between Payne's prudish version which excluded passages that conflicted with his own observations of Arab life, and Burton's sensational rendering that only avoided falling foul of indecency laws because it was printed in a private edition. It is good, therefore, that we finally have an unfussy scholarly translation that makes a bonfire of the accretions. What emerges phoenix-like from the flames is a set of stories that are relatively unknown but are more evocative because of the consistent view of the world that they present.
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