Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Comparing Mahdi to Burton and Haddawy

A few interesting comparisons of some key translations and editions of the Nights.

Some quick notes about Mahdi's manuscript/edition: The Wazir kills Shahriyar's wife and future wives.

In Mahdi the Wazir is called:

ابو جاريتين

Which is translated in Haddawy as "father of the two girls" but which actually (thanks Nadine) means father of the two concubines or servants (much more interesting). It's the first time I heard of the Wazir called anything other than Shahriyar's Wazir. Jariya is an old medieval word and is, according to my sources, no longer in use.

Unfortunately Google's translation (which is horrible in general for a contextually complex language like Arabic into English) of the word as "ongoing" (which would make the Wazir (Sharazad's father) named "Father of Ongoing") is incorrect and there is no word apart from the dual form of the servants/concubines.

Here are some segments of text for consideration, comparing the Arabic of Mahdi's manuscript with Haddawy's and Burton's translations. I'm interested in the way in which the translators (and Burton was using a different version than Haddawy/Mahdi) dealt with rhythm and language. Haddawy says in his introduction that he is not copying the rhymes into English because they would sound bad. I think Burton does a pretty good job of getting close to the Arabic rhythm and playfulness of the text though and Haddawy sounds relatively flat here.

Description of Shahrazad:
In Mahdi's manuscript (p 22):
وكانت الكبيره شهرازاد قد قرات الكتب والمصنفات والحكمه وكتب الطبيات وحفظت الاشعار وطالعت الاخبار وعلمت اقوال الناس وكلام الحكما والملوك, عارفه لبيبه حكيمه اديبه, قد قرت ودرت

“The older daughter, Shahrazad, had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by heart, had studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise and refined. She had read and learned.” (Haddawy 11)

“Now he had two daughters, Shahrazad and Dunyazad hight, of whom the elder had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of by-gone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studies philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.” (Burton 14-5).

and the ox and the donkey:
Mahdi p 27 -
ويستعملونى من الليل الى الليل ويطلعوا بى فى الليل الى دار البقر ويلقحوا لى الفول بالطين والتبن بقصله, وابات فى الخرا والبول طول ليلتى, وانت لم تبرح فى كنش ورش ومسح ومعلف نضيف ملان تبن, وانت واقف مستريح وفى النادر حتى يعرض لصاحبنا التاجر حاجه يركبك فيها ويعود على اتره, وانت مستريح وانا تعبان, وانت نايم وانا سهران.

Haddawy – “They work me from nighttime to nighttime, take me back in the dark, offer me beans soiled with mud and hay mixed with chaff, and let me spend the night lying in urine and dung. Meanwhile you rest on well-swept, watered and smoothed ground, with a clean trough full of hay. You stand in comfort, save for the rare occasion when our master rides you to do a brief errand and returns. You are comfortable, while I am weary; you sleep, while I keep awake” (12).

Burton – “They shut me up in the byre and throw me beans and crushed-straw, mixed with dirt and chaff; and I lie in dung and filth and foul stinks through the livelong night. But thou art always lying at ease, save when it happens (and seldom enough!) that the master hath some business, when he mounts thee and rides thee to town and returns with thee forthright. So it happens that I am toiling and distrest while thou takest thine ease and thy rest; thou sleepest while I am sleepless; I hunger still while thou eatest thy fill, and I win contempt while thou winnest good will” (16-7).


  1. What is your opinion about the translation by Mardrus/Mathers that appeared in 1923? Is it any good? I am asking as it is the only translation that is available here in the local bookshop.

    Best regards.

  2. Hello and thanks for your comment. I'm unable to comment on the version you ask about because I haven't read it yet unfortunately. Perhaps another visitor can better comment on the Mardrus version.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.