Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Tale: Aladdin

Between 1704 and 1717, there occurred one of the Great Events in the history of European translation. This was the publication of Antoine Galland’s French translation from Arabic of The Thousand and One Nights, in 11 volumes. It was the first version in any European language of one of the most captivating of all collections of folk tales. They deserve to be on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was by no means the first translation from Arabic to French, but it was the first to become a best-seller.

The ground had been prepared for the publication. The taste for fantasy folktales had been stimulated in France - and perhaps in Galland - by the publication, just a few years earlier, of Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose. However, the fantasies of the Nights took not only France but all of literary Europe by storm. As my one-time university tutor, Bernard Lewis, has said, they were “the fountainhead of the new romantic cult of the East," or in other words what is nowadays called Orientalism.

What kind of translator was Antoine Galland (1646-1714)? Certainly a Professional Expert, by the criteria of his century. The Greek, Latin and Hebrew he learnt at school were commonplace then (see my December 2 post about grammar schools, which had their equivalent in France), but he went on to master all the three major languages of the Middle East in his time: Arabic, Persian and Turkish. He became librarian and private secretary to the nobleman who was French ambassador in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and accompanied him on the latter’s journeys through Syria, Palestine and the Balkans. His liaison work for his patron must therefore have involved him in a good deal of translating and interpreting. But beyond that, he was a bibliophile, a collector and an antiquarian.

Indeed Galland deserves a lot of credit not only for translating the Nights, but for finding them and bringing them to light. You see, they were popular, orally transmitted stuff, with constantly shifting and augmented content, and consequently not considered ’literature’ by the Arabs or by their successors the Ottoman Turks. Even two centuries later, when I was studying Classical Arabic at university, they weren’t on our reading list - which was a pity because their simple language, direct narrative style and entertaining content makes them an excellent text for beginners. Today there are critical editions by Arabs, and conferences about them. But the Arabs’ regard for the Nights today is the consequence of the Europeans’ esteem for them thanks, in the first place, to Galland.

I can’t follow the spread of the Nights all through Europe. Anyway, there’s a very good book that does so, Mia Gerhardt’s The Art of Story-Telling. Instead, I’m going to stick what ensued in England.

To be continued tomorrow - as Sheherazade might have said.

Antoine Galland (1646-1714). Les mille et une nuits: contes arabes / trad. en françois par Mr Galland. Paris: Veuve de C. Barbin, 1704-17. 11 vols. There are modern editions still in print.

Charles Perrault (1628-1703). Contes de ma mère Loye. Paris: C. Barbin, 1697. 273 p. There are modern editions and English translations still in print. Notice that Perrault and Galland had the same publisher.

Bernard Lewis. Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East. London: Alcove, 1973. The paperback edition is still in print.

Mia I. Gerhardt. The Art of Story-Telling: A literary study of the Thousand and One Nights. Leiden: Brill, 1963. Has a pretty full list of European translations. A pity it’s gone out of print.

Ed Lake. Nights to remember. The National newspaper, Abu Dhabi, 2009. Click for link.