Friday, January 30, 2009

TLS Review of Lyons - Geert Jan van Gelder

Review and comments about the review afterwards from the TLS deputy editor.

Review found at the TLS website and pasted below:

From The Times Literary SupplementJanuary 21, 2009

Grand Arabian nights
Truly a work of world literature, The Arabian (or 1,001) Nights has been fully translated into English for the first time in over a century

So which Nights are they, the Arabian, or the Thousand and One? Both appear on the title page of this, the first full English translation since Richard Burton published his version well over a century ago. The dual title neatly illustrates the hybrid nature of the work: it is part of Arabic and European literature, it contains stories and motifs that may be traced to Sanskrit, Persian and Greek literature, it hovers between the oral and the written, the popular and the highbrow, the pious and the scabrous, realism and fantasy. “Arabian”, an epithet it acquired in Europe, is a misnomer, for it was neither conceived nor written in Arabia and the great majority of the stories are set in Iraq, Egypt or Persia rather than the Arabian Peninsula. The original Arabic title, Alf layla wa-layla, translates as “A Thousand and One Nights” – but one should be cautious using the term “original”, for the earliest mention in Arabic refers to a Persian book called Hazar afsana, “A Thousand Tales”. An Arabic version, including the frame story about the resourceful and eloquent Shahrazad and the murderous misogynist King Shahriyar (a story that may be of Indian origin, whereas the names are Persian), was around in the tenth century, but the text is not preserved, presumably because it was deemed to be “silly stuff”, in the words of a tenth-century scholar. It was anonymous, its language was not sufficiently polished, and it was too obviously fictional and fantastic in parts, all of which precluded its acceptance in highbrow circles. At the same time it was never as truly popular, in the sense of widespread among and beloved by the illiterate, as the monstrously lengthy and equally anonymous epic tales such as Sirat Antar or Sirat Bani Hilal.

Then, in Europe three centuries ago, the Nights rose to the pinnacle of critical esteem when Antoine Galland produced his French translation, which spawned numerous other European versions. The Nights came to belong to World Literature, loved by children, novelists, poets and the general reading public, in the process contributing much to the formation and malformation of the Middle East in Western eyes. Galland did more than merely translate: he shaped the text into what became a more or less canonical form; as a result the Nights are as much a part of Western literature as of Arabic. To Western readers, the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad belong to the core of the Nights and are among the best-known tales; but they did not belong to the Arabic text until Galland added them. There is, in fact, no known Arabic text of the Aladdin and Ali Baba stories that predates Galland, and elements in the story of Aladdin suggest that it may have been a European fairy tale rather than an Arabic one. It would be unthinkable, however, to publish the complete Nights without its two most popular tales, which is why in the present work they have been translated, by Ursula Lyons, from Galland’s French, as is an alternative ending of a Sindbad story. It was only in the course of the twentieth century that the Arabs themselves, in the wake of the Westerners, came to consider the Nights as something to be proud of and to study seriously instead of enjoying it in secret as a guilty pleasure. Many reactionary Muslims still consider it an unedifying text that ought to be banned or at least expurgated; but on the website, where a wealth of Arabic texts may be consulted and searched, the Nights have the highest number of hits (I should add that the Koran is not listed there).

Three English translations from the Arabic appeared in the course of the nineteenth century. Edward William Lane, a good Arabist, produced a version in 1839 that was acceptable to a Victorian readership, which meant that he had to omit a fair number of stories, passages and poems. More complete was the version by John Payne (1882–4), which was soon overshadowed, and to some extent plagiarized, by that of Richard Burton (1885–8), a translation as eccentric as Burton himself. His obsession with matters of sex and eroticism (he also put his name to a translation of the Kama Sutra – not “Karmasutra”, as in Robert Irwin’s introduction to Malcolm C. Lyons’s new translation) is obvious not only from his copious notes, but also from the translation itself; Burton’s wife Isobel saw to it that an expurgated version was published for a general readership. Burton’s language, too, is eccentric and pretty unreadable, such that a not unlikely title might be “The Shroff who Futtered his Cadette with the Two Coyntes” (I am making this up, but the words are Burton’s). Such words may be useful for players of Scrabble; modern readers deserve something better.

They had to wait a long time, in the meantime having to make do, for instance, with an English version of the perfumed travesty of J. C. Mardrus’s more French than Arabian Nights. Some partial translations from the Arabic were made in the intervening period. One of these, by N. J. Dawood, published in Penguin Classics more than half a century ago, is unsatisfactory, to put it mildly. What to think of a translator who decides to “ignore the divisions of the tales into nights” (to quote from the introduction), thereby casually ditching an essential structural device of the collection; who leaves out all the poems because “they tend to obstruct the natural flow of the narrative” and because “they are devoid of literary merit”; and who includes a couple of tales that do not even belong to the Nights, merely because “they are typical of the amusing short folk-tales still current in the Middle East”? The information given in Dawood’s introduction on the history and nature of the text is inadequate, and contrasts with the high standards set by the average Penguin Classics introduction. Much better are the more recent two volumes with translations by Husain Haddawy (1990, 1995), which are more readable and reliable.

By the time Haddawy produced his first volume, Muhsin Mahdi had published the first scholarly edition of an Arabic text, based on the oldest extant manuscript of the Nights available, which dates from the fifteenth century (Mahdi himself believed it was a century older). This text, also used by Galland as it happens, is fascinating because it is written in a lively Arabic that is much closer to the spoken language than the more polished versions offered by the uncritical editions produced in Cairo and Calcutta in the nineteenth century, which formed the basis for Lane, Burton and many other early translations. Unfortunately, the text of this manuscript is not complete, for it stops at night 282. Haddawy chose to translate this version, and so did various recent translators in other European languages, reverting to the Cairo or Calcutta texts for the remaining parts. The choice of Mahdi’s text has been justified on two grounds: it is lively and readable, and it offers a more “original”, more authentic and popular version, unmarred by the interference of meddling Arab or Arabist scholars and correctors who polished the language and the style of the texts for the nineteenth-century editions. The former argument is valid; the latter, advocated by Mahdi and followed by many others, is not, for it takes for granted, first, that there is something that can be called an “original” text of the Nights, and, second, that this pure original was “popular” until it fell into the defiling hands of highbrow pedants. Both assumptions are erroneous, for one cannot speak of an original text, and the polishing process was present from the earliest times. Many of the stories found in the Nights have a “highbrow” origin, and several of them are indeed found in Arabic polite literature, such as the extremely readable tenth-century collection al-Faraj ba’d al-shiddah (“Relief after Distress, or Happy Endings”) by al-Tanukhi – a work that deserves full translation into English, being rather more representative of classical Arabic literature than the two works best known to Western readers, the Nights and the Koran.

The choice between Mahdi’s text and a more traditional one was decided in favour of the latter by Malcolm Lyons in his new translation, with which Penguin Classics has made up in magnificent fashion for its former neglect of the Nights. Lyons, Emeritus Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge, is uniquely qualified, for he is equally at home in the popular and high-status traditions, having published a magisterial survey of the popular epics as well as important studies on poetry. His decision not to opt for the Mahdi text must therefore be taken seriously, and I believe it was the right one, especially since we already have an English version of Haddawy’s volume. Lyons used the text known as “Calcutta II”, which was published between 1839 and 1842, supervised by W. H. Macnaghten; one’s confidence in the latter’s competence as an Arabist is undermined by his inability, apparent from the title page, to distinguish between alif (the letter A) and alf (one thousand). Lyons’s translation does not contain the many additional stories that are found in yet other versions of the Nights, such as the “Breslau edition” or the Wortley-Montagu manuscript.

Robert Irwin, the author of The Arabian Nights: A companion, has provided three useful introductions to the three volumes, on the nature of the work, the history of the text, and the extraordinary impact of the Nights on world literature, art and film. He is also responsible for the annotation in footnotes, which is minimal but aided by a glossary printed at the end of each volume, as are maps of the Abbasid Caliphate and of the two major cities figuring in the stories: Baghdad and Cairo. The Nights must be among the most frequently illustrated works; but the images in the present translation are all of the textual kind and the reader will not be distracted by Oriental or Orientalist pictures.

The translation reads well. It is faithful to the original, preserving the formula that punctuates the text and marks the division into 1,001 nights: “Morning now dawned and Shahrazad broke off from what she had been allowed to say. Then, when it was the . . . th night, she continued: I have heard, O auspicious king . . .”. Incidentally, if the ploy of nightly tales with cliff-hanging breaks is taken literally, the storytelling sessions must have been short, since the average night spans only a few pages and sometimes barely more than one: either Shahrazad’s words were substantially curtailed, or she and her husband did other things in between. The rhymed prose used in the Arabic in this formula and on numerous other occasions, especially in flowery descriptions, has not been imitated, nor has rhyme been used for the many poems, unlike the practice of, for instance, Burton, Haddawy or Enno Littmann in his German translation. The Arabic monorhyme (only one rhyme, maintained throughout a poem) is difficult to imitate in English for obvious reasons, and even an easier rhyme scheme will often compel the translator to resort to padding or distortion. Blank verse, or at least verse in iambic or some other metre, is less difficult to produce, but Lyons has employed this only intermittently; consequently the poetry looks rather pedestrian at times. The translation does not suffer from the archaisms and highfalutin expressions that abound in many earlier translations, and to excess in Burton. Lyons’s English is relatively straightforward, just like the original Arabic.

Classical Arabic writers are generally not prudish, which posed a problem to Victorian and other translators. Lane’s solution was to omit bawdy tales altogether, while Burton revived old words or coined new ones for his purposes. Lyons occasionally resorts to another kind of prudishness, for instance when, shrinking from the correct, demotic English translation of hir, he uses the Latinate “vagina” in the tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies. This tale contains a passage on the naming of parts; the ladies are said to refer to the porter’s zubb or air: Lyons resorts to transliteration instead of translation. Some readers will be delighted to learn some naughty Arabic, but surely English has a profusion of equally vulgar words for the sexual organs. It should be stressed, however, that obscenities, Arabic equivalents of English four-letter words, are few and far between in the original, where sexual intercourse is often simply expressed as “lying with” or more elaborately by means of metaphors martial (“storming the fortress”) or religious (“circumambulating the Kaaba”, “putting the imam into the prayer niche”), with the mildly shocking profanity that was common in pre-modern Arabic.

One thing I missed was a paragraph with hints on pronunciation. A full scholarly transliteration of Arabic names and terms would have been out of place, but at least the correct stress could have been indicated. This would have been more useful than the pointless retention of the apostrophe indicating the pharyngeal sound called ’ayn, as in ’Abd, which few non-specialists or non-Arabs would know what to do with. Already I imagine, with horror, how the name of the beautiful Badi’ al-Jamal will be pronounced by future readers as if she had something to do with a camel (jamal, different from jamâl, “beauty”), or how the name of the slave girl Hubub would sound like “hubbub”: it should be stressed on the second syllable and rhyme with “boob”, and I believe the correct reading would actually be Habub. The general reading public is supposedly averse to diacritical signs, but I have personally never met a “general reader” who abhorred macrons or circumflexes, and “Habûb” cannot look too off-putting. On the subject of names, one wonders why Nur al-Din’s sash-making girlfriend has been given the Hebrew name Miriam. Mary would be more appropriate, since she turns out to be the daughter of the Frankish King; but the conventional Arabic form Maryam is surely best.

Robert Irwin justifies the minimalism of his annotation in the introduction to the third volume, by pointing out that the present translation has no “ethnographic agenda”, unlike those of Galland, Lane and Burton. Thus it is suggested that annotation is slightly suspect and may lead to accusations of “orientalism” in the Saidian sense. This is surely wrong. When, for instance, someone walks in one of the streets of al-Hira, the reader may want to know where that place is, but neither the maps nor the glossary will help. A reference to the “Abjad-Hawwaz alphabet” may suggest a secret or cryptic script; a note could have explained that it is the ordinary Arabic alphabet in the old “Semitic” order, as still used in Hebrew.

That I should resort to such minor quibbles is proof of the high quality of the translation, which ought to become the standard one for the present century. It is fitting that it appears in time for the 1,200th anniversary of the death of Harun al-Rashid (or Hârûn al-Rashîd, d.809), whose fictional persona appears in so many stories in the Nights.

Tales of 1001 nights
Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons; introduced and annotated by Robert Irwin
Three volumes, 2,778pp. Penguin. £125.
978 1 84614 117 1

Geert Jan van Gelder is Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St John’s College. His latest monograph is Close Relationships: Incest and inbreeding in classical Arabic Literature, 2005.

response from deputy editor of TLS:

From The Times Literary SupplementJanuary 21, 2009

This week
A note from the Deputy Editor

Like many unusually gifted people threatened by boredom and depression, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was prodigiously creative: in fifty-two years producing twelve plays, a large body of dramatic and literary criticism and of verse, writings on classical art and literature and aesthetic theory, and “forays into theology and biblical criticism which mark a watershed in Protestant thinking”. An eighteenth-century output for a writer who was, as Ritchie Robertson says, the central author of the German Enlightenment, a figure of European stature, always ready to undermine accepted ideas – even Enlightened ones. He receives his due in an “unfailingly lucid” new study which, though written in English, has first appeared – a standing rebuke to English-language publishers – in German translation.

Lessing’s range of interests took in not just all the major European languages and literatures but also the world beyond Europe – especially that of Islam. Reviewing Malcolm C. Lyons’s new translation of The Arabian Nights – the first full translation into English since Richard Burton’s – Geert Jan van Gelder tells us not just how un-Arabian the book is but also how it was only in the twentieth century that Arabs came to consider the Nights as “something to be proud of rather than enjoying it in secret as a guilty pleasure”. Many nineteenth-century editions of the Nights were produced in Cairo, a place long associated with guilty pleasures in the Western imagination. Robert Irwin, the TLS’s Middle East editor, who has written the introductions and notes to the new Nights, looks back over the work of that city’s most famous modern chronicler, Naguib Mahfouz, while Oleg Grabar surveys a “beautiful and thoughtful” history of Cairo’s transformation by the Mamluks. Henri Astier describes an unlikely meeting of French minds – Michel Houellebecq’s and Bernard-Henri Lévy’s – and Rosemary Ashton a very English attempt to improve English ones, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

Alan Jenkins


  1. I tried to order a copy of Malcolm Lyon's translation from Amazon a couple of days ago. The order was canceled because the books were unobtainable. So, what's up at Penguin? Have the books gone out of print already? Does anyone know where I might obtain a copy of the complete set (not the single volume release)?

  2. JC

    I got mine from Amazon UK, used my Amazon ID and login on their site.

    It looks like they have some still and some used ones and a collectible one here:

    I heard they are a limited edition though.

    - M