Saturday, March 19, 2011

Burton & the Wortley-Montague & Oxford

I chanced upon several letters in the Appendix of Volume 4 of Burton's Supplemental Nights which throw light on the situation he faced when he was in the process of translating his Nights.

He wanted to have the copy of the Wortley-Montague manuscript sent to him at the India Office from the Bodleian Library at Oxford but the board members at the library were refusing, despite Burton's insistence that he was not going to translate the racier passages or stories.

This may explain why ultimately there are several stories in the Wortley-Montague (including "Ali and his Large Member" of my previous post here: that Burton did not translate.

He also mentions the incident in the preface to the edition.  It's in my Volume 4 but may be in different volumes depending on which edition you are looking at, the initial set of his translations from the Wortley-Montague.

He tried to have a student who didn't know Arabic at Oxford copy the manuscript for him (like drawing the same characters without knowing what they said), but the student quit after a few days!

He eventually had someone photocopy (or the equivalent?) the manuscript for him and send it to him.  Ali and his large member is MIA however.  I'll have to check the 1995 German edition of the manuscript to see if Ali is there.   I have been officially sidetracked, though not completely off my own tracks.  Studying the Nights is truly like digging in the sand.

Many thanks to Jamie at USC for the question.

There is another English edition by Jonathan Scott translated before Burton which also includes stories from the Wortley-Montague but which, and I'm not certain here and only relying on Burton's notes so far, seem to be edited for cleanliness and not to contain an extensively translated amount of stories either.

Burton's letters are interesting to read in this volume.  He's quite upset with the library and ends the Appendix A of this volume with a scathing indictment of Oxford in general!

Some snippets from his letters:

"I may note that the translated tales (as may be seen by Scott's version) contain nothing indelicate or immoral; in fact the whole MS. is exceptionally pure.  Moreover, the MS., as far as I can learn, is never used at Oxford" (281).

"I am acquainted with many of the public libraries of Europe, but I know of none that would throw such obstacles in the way of students" (282).

The reason for the story not being translated by Burton, however, may not be related to the incident with the Bodleian after all.  As I look at Volume 5 I see his rebuttal to the library's refusal of lending the manuscript to him.  He writes to them that, because of their refusal, he's now going to put in all of the racy material, even overdoing it!

He also dedicates the Volume to them:


He writes to them:

I take the liberty of placing your names at the head of this Volume which owes its rarest and raciest passages to your kindly refusing the temporary transfer of the Wortley Montague MS. from your pleasant library to the care of Dr. Rost., Chief Librarian, India Office.  As a sop to "bigotry and virtue," as a concession to the "Scribes and Pharisees," I had undertaken, in case the loan were granted, not to translate tales and passages which might expose you, the Curators, to unfriendly comment.  But, possibly anticipating what injury would thereby accrue to the Volume and what sorrow to my subscribers, you were good enough not to sanction the transfer - indeed you refused it to me twice - and for this step my Clientele will be (or ought to be) truly thankful to you.

I am, Gentlemen,
Yours obediently,

BODLEIAN LIBRARY, August 5th, 1888."

"Ali and his large member" is not in this volume under this title.  Perhaps the story is inside another story or titled differently by Burton?  Perhaps the story doesn't really exist??


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