Archive | August, 2014

Review: Arabian Nights’ Entertainments

2 Aug

Arabian Nights' Entertainments
Arabian Nights’ Entertainments by Robert L. Mack

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments is the very first translation in English of A Thousand and One Nights (1706-21). It was translated from Antoine Galland’s Mille et Une Nuit (1704-17) by an anonymous ‘Grub Street’ translator. Antoine Galland, a French scholar well-read in languages, is generally considered the European discoverer of the Arabic manuscript which was itself a translation of combined tales from Persian and Indian languages. The English translator, in spite of producing a superb translation lasting unchallenged for over a century, remains anonymous to this day. His choice for the title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments rather than A Thousand and One Nights is very significant as it has from the start represented the book as something very different from what it really is. This also begins a naming tradition of the book which all succeeding nineteenth-century translators have preserved even though each of them claimed to be directly translating from original manuscripts.
The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments has been produced at a time when Europe was reconnecting with its medieval past through an unquenchable thirst for fairy tales, something which has massively contributed to the translation’s instantaneous success. It was even very popular amongst culturally influential figures such as Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and Charlotte Bronte. Its stories are alluded to in their work, its plot imitated, and its themes and characters adopted and reincarnated.

The stories of The Nights are based within the frame of the story of Scheherazade. Prince Schahriar, having been betrayed by his first wife, decides that all women are ‘unchaste’. He marries a new bride every night and has her beheaded when the first beam of dawn appears in the sky. It is Scheherazade’s turn to marry the prince, and to avoid a similar fate to her predecessors, she devises the trick of telling the prince a new story every night. Her stories do not end by the end of the night, but become rather the starts of new stories to be told the following nights. Schahriar’s interest in the new story she promises to tell the following night, saves Scheherazade’s head from the executioner’s scimitar at every break of dawn. Some of the popular stories told by Scheherazade to Schahriar, including Aladdin and Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, are not based on the Arabic manuscript but are rather pseudo-translations devised by Galland to complete a thousand stories for the thousand nights he appears to have taken literally.
For over a century this version of The Arabian Nights has continued to be the sole representative of the people it has been given their name in the English language. Subsequent translations could only attempt to get beyond its centrality by exaggerating its stories and excessively annotating them. Its intimate scenes and sexual references have awed and offended its readers. Nevertheless its endless chain-like narrative has never stopped to inspire authors, artists and politicians, and its prisoner queen has been the subject of wild British dreams and illicit aspirations.

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