Friday, July 2, 2010

Alf Layla wa Layla - The Title

1001 Titles...or 1000 Titles and another Title

It occurs to me that the title from the Arabic is often misconstrued as the number 1001, making it "1001 Nights" from the Arabic "Alf Layla wa Layla."  (for history on some of the title variants see the article "what is the arabian nights" on this blog)

In fact though the title translates not as "1001 Nights" but rather "1000 Nights and a Night" - I like the latter title better actually because it opens up the form of the Nights more, adding to their infinite reproducibility vs. the finite though suggestive number of "1001."

"One Thousand Nights and a Night" is an active title, there is a thousand nights (a lot) and then on top of it, there's another one (and another, and another), there is always another night even after a thousand.

Saying 1001 in Arabic would be something like "Wahid (one) wa Alf (and a thousand)" and not "Alf wa wahid"anyway, though in some colloquial sayings it is this way in Arabic but not for the strict number itself.

So here we have instead of having a finite number of stories to listen to ("well now we are at story 1001, the last one"), you have an infinite one ("if you think that story was cool wait till you hear about the one with the three beggars and the salmon...").

In English translations Payne has it as "The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night" and Burton has it as "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night" ("a" vs. "one" - the "a" of Burton being, in my opinion, more "open").  Lane's seems to be "The Thousand and One Nights."  Galland's French title:  "Les mille et une nuits" (literally "The Thousand and One Nights."

I can't recall ever seeing this particular issue mentioned before, if someone knows of it being brought up please let me know.


  1. Well, it was mentioned in my undergraduate Arabic class and also in the class I took on the Thousand Nights And A Night. I don't know if that's the kind of mentions you're looking for?

  2. Thank you for your comment Clarisse, what was said about the title's issue in your class and its translation? - M

  3. Oh, my professors said pretty much exactly the same thing you did in your post.

  4. The mis-construal of the title to as concrete number 1001 must have been the working assumption of the printers of the Bulaq and Calcutta editions (or the writers of the manuscripts they worked from) who added material to fill out that exact number of nights.

    The Mardrus/Mathers edition is titled 'The Book Of The Thousand Nights And One Night.'

  5. I meant to say 'The mis-construal of the title as the concrete number 1001...'

    p.s., hope you're well.