From its origin, the Thousand and One Nights has been frequently translated, embellished, and transformed.
In his debut book, a fascinating work of cultural and literary history, Horta (Literature/New York Univ. Abu Dhabi) investigates the transmutations of the influential collection of Arabic tales, purportedly invented by Shahrazad to distract her husband, King Shahriyar, from murdering young women in his kingdom. In the second half of the eighth century C.E., Horta asserts, the collection was first translated from Persian into Arabic; since then, additional stories have been added by Arabic and European translators, including the familiar “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Story of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” “The Thousand and One Nights,” writes the author, “must be understood not as a singular work but as an array of texts” that underwent constant interaction with other cultures, which incorporated into the collection “love stories, trickster tales, historical epics, tales of the supernatural, animal fables, and tales of heroic journeys to foreign lands.” Eventually, it became “one of the key texts in the emergence of world literature in French and English.” Horta focuses on several significant translators: Antoine Galland, the first French translator of the tales; Pre-Raphaelite poet John Payne; British Orientalist Edward William Lane; and the intrepid explorer Richard Francis Burton, who disguised himself as a Muslim pilgrim to travel to Mecca and Medina in 1853. Besides offering a close reading of the translations, Horta draws on a memoir by Diyab, a Syrian traveler who told the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba to Galland; Lane’s notebooks and correspondence; and drafts of Burton’s translation. These sources reveal “partnerships and rivalries” that shaped each translator’s text. In investigating Diyab’s influence, for example, Horta notes, “the context of amorality and violence that characterized Diyad’s travels survives in these tales even after Galland’s stylish adaptation of the stories to meet French expectations of an Oriental tale.”
An insightful examination of a significant literary work and the fraught complexities of translation.