Writing in the mid-1930s, Jorge Luis Borges considered the fate of Antoine Galland's translation of The Thousand and One Nights (1704-17):
Those who grew intimate with it experienced happiness and astonishment. Its Orientalism, which seems frugal to us now, was bedazzling to men who took snuff and composed tragedies in five acts ... We, their mere anachronistic readers of the twentieth century, perceive only the cloying flavor of the eighteenth century and not the evaporated aroma of the Orient which two hundred years ago was their novelty and their glory. (1) If Galland's "Orientalism" was frugal eight decades ago, how does it appear to us now? Perhaps less striking than the Orientalism of Borges himself, but after all, the sense of the term has changed drastically.
Borges' essay "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights" is a short but fascinating piece by a man who did not hesitate to pronounce on the fidelity of the translations despite having no knowledge of the source language. He did have an excellent grasp of the target languages, however, and more importantly, of their literatures. The article may well be "superannuated in its cultural politics," the author indulging blithely in a "personal reverie" we could not permit ourselves today. (2) Nonetheless, Borges was an astute reader, and his piece provides a vantage point from which to consider the translation history of the Nights, now that the past decade has seen the publication of two spectacular new renderings: one in French, the other in English. At about 3,000 pages each, a Nights translation of this order requires not only a high level of skill and learning but an extraordinary commitment. Little wonder, then, that these are the first such efforts in over a century, and it is likely to be a long time again before anyone else takes up the challenge in English or French.
The new editions by Malcolm C. Lyons into English (2008) and Andre Miquel and the late Jamel Eddine Bencheikh into French (2005) are both excellent. The translators' qualifications are impeccable. Each translation appears in a venerable series of literary classics; each contains introductions treating the history of the collection and of previous translations (in the case of the Penguin, the introduction is by Robert Irwin, with an additional piece on the influence of the Nights in literature) and comprehensive glossaries. The Pleiade is somewhat more extensive here, with a lengthy introduction by Miquel, an extract from a previously published piece by Bencheikh, a chronology and a discussion of manuscripts by Margaret Sironval, and, most significantly, substantial annotations, mainly but not exclusively by Miquel.
But do we, Anglophone and Francophone readers, really need another translation of the Thousand and One Nights? Are there not already a myriad of versions out there already? One certainly does not have the impression that access to the Nights corpus of stories has been limited. Yet the answer is yes, we do need a new translation. In English one reason is clear enough--the most comprehensive and widely available one is that of Richard Burton (1885), an extraordinary work whose many merits are compromised by its unreadability. After such an interval there is, of course, a desire to update language and style, but equally significant for both language markets is the matter of which texts or which stories to include, on which decisions have varied drastically in the past. Further, these new translations are particularly noteworthy for qualities that Borges did not and indeed could not judge: their fidelity to their source texts and source language.
Both translations contain exactly the same stories. They have translated the Arabic edition known as Calcutta II (1839-42), although the Pleiade refers also to the Bulaq edition of 1835 (1: xxxix). In addition, each contains the "The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and "The Story of Aladdin, or The Magic Lamp," two of the "orphan stories" for which there exists no original Arabic version. (3)
This is something of a first, at least in the French and English traditions, as previous translations have differed quite a bit in their content. Galland used his fifteenth-century manuscript and some other lost or unknown sources, the tales recounted by the Syrian visitor Hanna Diyab (among which were "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba"), not to mention those translated from the Turkish by someone else and inserted into Galland's Nuits without his knowledge. A number of early versions, including the first in English, were translations of Galland's French, but many other examples were less straightforward.
Josef von Hammer Purgstall translated an Egyptian manuscript into French in the years 1804-6. Both the manuscript and the translation were lost, but not before being rendered into German by August Ernst Zinserling in 1823; it was then retranslated into French by G. S. Trebutien (1828), but by now several removes from the (lost) original. Edward Lane (1839) used the Bulaq edition but excised much material he found objectionable or unworthy. Richard Burton went to the opposite extreme: he used Calcutta II as a base but added from all existing versions, such as Galland's Nuits, the Breslau edition of Maximilian Habicht (1825-43), the Wortley Montague manuscript at Oxford, and more. Charles Mardrus, the best-known French translator after Galland, at first claimed to have translated the Bulaq edition, but when discrepancies between it and his supposed translation of 1899-1904 were pointed out, he claimed his source was a seventeenth-century North African manuscript. Proust, Gide, and his other fans were untroubled, as was apparently Edward Powys Mathers, who translated Mardrus' French into English (1937). Further into the twentieth century, Rene Khawam translated from the Galland manuscript and published "Sindbad the Sailor" and other tales under separate cover (1965-67), claiming that they did not form part of the authentic Nights. N. J. Dawood excised all poetry and night divisions and opted for only a handful of stories, including one that does not appear in the Nights but was "typical of the amusing short folktales still current in the Middle East." (4)
For better or for worse, all this fun has come to an end. (5) Henceforth, authenticity would be the priority, although it would take some time to decide what was "authentic." Authenticity was a major factor in the translation of Hussein Haddawy (1990). He used Muhsin Mahdi's recent edition (1984) of the fifteenth-century Galland manuscript, which is incomplete, containing only 282 nights. The Galland manuscript is to date the oldest known of the Nights. All of the previous translations (except that of Khawam) are based on the editions of the nineteenth century, themselves dating well after the Nights had been introduced into Europe. Editor Mahdi and translator Haddawy argued for the authenticity of the Galland manuscript version and were dismissive, if not contemptuous, of the later "complete" versions. In the introduction to his wonderfully readable translation, Haddawy praised the Mahdi edition effusively: "... a coherent and precise piece of work of art that, unlike other versions, is like a restored icon or musical score, without the added layers of paint or distortions, hence, as close to the original as possible. Thus a long-standing grievance has been redressed ... this edition redeems all others from a general curse" (p. xv). Haddawy was a firm believer in redemption: he subsequently published a second volume of translated tales that were never part of the "original" Galland manuscript, from the corpus he had previously derided. He included "Sindbad the Sailor" from Bulaq and "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba" from Galland's French.
In choosing Calcutta II as their source text, Lyons and Miquel/Bencheikh have chosen the edition that is most complete and that corresponds best to what people in both East and West consider to be The Thousand and One Nights. To this Arabic text they have made two concessions to popular tastes in the addition of "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba." (6) But even here they have been scrupulous. There is no attempt to integrate these tales into the body of the Nights itself; they are set apart and it is clearly noted that they are taken from the French version of Galland. Contrast this with Burton who, in an effort to achieve stylistic consistency, contrived initially to render Galland's French "Aladdin" into Arabic and then translate his own Arabic into English. When this proved unsatisfactory, he then sought out supposedly uncorrupted Hindustani versions of "Aladdin" that were "sufficiently Orientalized and divested of their inordinate Gallicisms." (7)
THE GENEALOGY OF NIGHTS TRANSLATIONS
All translations must aim at improvement of what has gone before. Borges begins his article with an image of Burton in Trieste, "in a palace with damp statues and deficient hygiene facilities," writing to replace the work of Edward Lane. They all, Borges states, form part of a "hostile dynasty": "Lane translated against Galland, Burton against Lane" (p. 92).
These two translations under review have none of the polemics of their predecessors; the "dynasty" has lost its hostility. But whatever their differences, a common thread runs through all the translations, from Galland to Lyons. Each implies in his own way the insufficiency of the tales themselves in their original forms. Borges put the...