Thousand and One Nights, on the nature of a few translations

2024-05-29 @Literature

Over many years I’ve neglected the Thousand and One Nights mostly to evade the distorted lens of inferior translated material, nor Arabic nor Sanskrit anywhere on my linguistic roadmap otherwise. But in the last several months, further driven to read in French (as I’ve done with the initial translation of this oeuvre), I cringed, bit the bullet, and squeezed readings of select stories.

For those uninformed of the nature behind the Nights: the oriental tales (of severe rigour for Islamic precept) have propagated orally and written over the course of four-five centuries leading into the Middle Ages.

The earlier variants derive from Persia and India; the subsequent from Syria and ultimately medieval Egypt. The Egyptian manuscript in particular (beyond other sources) has served across translations of the last 150-200 years, assuming the translator followed the Arabic and not an existing European translation (a very common practice).

You can see that even the Arabic source disseminates several centuries of collaborative development. But whatever dirty lens to serve in familiarizing myself with the Nights, I hoped for something decently thorough, academically informative and manifest of some poetic byproduct.

I followed three translations of everything read:

Antoine Galland, French

Galland’s ~1704 French translation follows the Syrian manuscript, this also being the first European translation. Most Western writers and poets through the early 19th century gained exposure to the work through Galland’s effort.

I thus read the first ninety-nine/hundred nights, but however entertaining, I’ll have no more of it. Galland famously omits the verse fragments, censures the more explicit matter, employs fairly evenly accessible but subdued language which serves for pure page-turning entertainment with little for academic or ethnographic insight.

М. Салье, Russian

I read select stories from Салье translations (1929-39), compiled in Тысяча и Одна Ночь (Избранные Сказки), 1975. Салье follows the Egyptian manuscript in the first Russian endeavor not to leverage an existing European (often Galland’s) translation.

More rigorous than Galland’s prose, incorporating plentiful footnotes and reproducing/re-imagining the verse fragments ‘translated’ by Д. Самойлова, the work still gives manifest of what I most deplore across modern invocations of antiquity. I faced an identical frustration with my reading of the first of Boccaccio’s ten books of Decameron in А. Н. Веселовского translation before abandonment.

That is, I can’t reconcile antiquity represented in any but an appropriately aged dialect. Modern Russian doesn’t pass for Medieval Arabic. And to state it more explicitly for the pedants: anything not at least reminiscent of the Old East Slavic register feels sufficiently modern.

Sir Richard Burton, English

For the remainder I followed Burton’s 1880s extravagant effort: the language a mishmash of everything from medieval English through the Renaissance to the Victorian, both in terminology and jargon (plus the neologisms and borrowed words), thus exerting some conscious attempt to approximate the medievalism. The poet Swinburne of the same epoch likewise indulged in Chaucerian archaisms, but to no comparable extent.

The work is not without problems (see Jorge Luis Borges' incredible essay Los Traductores de 1001 noches, 1936). But for what I was seeking, Burton’s work makes for the best I’ve sampled.

Borges, across the innumerable critique, does express one keen point on the property of Burton’s ‘intemporality’:

Siempre un inglés es más intemporal que un francés: el heterogéneo estilo de Burton se ha anticuado menos que el de Mardrus, [1900’s French translator] que es de fecha notoria.

My fondness for English owes significantly to the multi-register, timeless property to which it more naturally lends, and to which Burton heavily appeals.

Though of individual taste, Burton conveys the ineffable antiquity and the extraordinary manifest throughout the tales.

Reading the Nights in Burton’s prose to me much reminds of reading Thomas Malory’s Morte D'Arthur: abundant refrains, lauds, invocations, the older pronouns and grammar, obnoxious hyperbole, the subtle humour, the rapid development depicted in an otherwise seamless structure full of poetic nonchalance.

Malory, also as a sort of a translator-adapter, synthesized older (early Medieval disparate and mostly French) writings for a late-Medieval audience. So while one addresses Arthurian chivalry and the other Oriental-Islamic folklore, the two feel kindred.

Explicit matter

Burton likewise is said to least censor the explicit among the lot, in contrast to Galland and other numerous bowdlerizers. The Nights convey pornography, extreme violence, dark humour and racial innuendoes not of taste to every contemporary reader, whose nature not every translator finds appropriate or even relevant to the fluidity. It’s no surprise Burton’s ten-plus volume publication was restricted to select members of the Burton Club.


Burton also self translates/adapts the verse fragments in which the Nights abounds. Now it’s worth noting that even much of the Nights‘ prose employs poetic principle, but here I refer explicitly to the verse. Verse is all over. Characters recite it, characters improvise it, characters even indulge in poetry slams. Poetry depicts moments from great woe to joy to everything particular in-between.

In the particular case, the verse adapted to Victorian standards is not something I cared to really engage. Most of it I rummage through superficially in hopes to identify the moral, however academically valuable. I don’t care for poetry translations. Devoting my time to the Nights already represents a severe compromise.


Of far greater value I find Burton’s inexhaustible annotations of extraordinary [!] ethnographic and anthropological insight: reinforced by own experience, Burton being the renown explorer, polyglot and chameleon throughout the Islamic parts of the world (and elsewhere). Burton’s biography, be even a quarter of it authentic (I’ve no reason to suspect otherwise), is something to hold in profound admiration.

In this regard, Burton comes second to none as far as I’m concerned. The annotations, for their gargantuan extent, can make for an independent study, and therein the Arabian Nights acquire value far beyond the mere entertainment of Galland.

Let’s leave it at that for now.

Questions, comments? Connect.