Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Tale (cont.): The Arabian Nights Entertainments

This post is a continuation of the preceding post. Please read the other one first.

It’s amazing how, in the 18th century, best-sellers were translated as fast as Harry Potter novels are today if the publishers sensed there was a market for them in another country; and unlike J. K. Rowling, Galland enjoyed no protection under international copyright. The earliest English translation in the British Library catalogue dates from 1712-1715, that is to say even before the publication of the original had been completed in Paris - and it was the fourth edition! It was an anonymous translation, probably the work of one or more of the notorious ‘Grub Street hacks’, who were poor, aspiring professional writers and eager translators who lived and worked in Grub Street in the City of London.

One remarkable thing about this very first English translation is the title: The Arabian Nights Entertainments. It was not, like Galland’s Mille et une nuits, a literal translation from the Arabic but one that adopted an English viewpoint and enticed readers by making the book sound both more exotic and more like light reading. Thereafter it became the standard English title. It was the first step in the process of naturalization.

All the other 18th-century English versions were derived from Galland, which means that they were indirect translations via French. It was not until the following century that direct translations from Arabic began to supplant his. From that point on, the history branches into three streams:

1. The full and for the most part accurate translations by Arabists for adult readers. One of these was by the great Arabic lexicographer Edward Lane, who had the additional advantage of having lived for several years in the Middle East. It was for a long time the most popular and it is still in print.

However, even a scholar like Lane came up against a serious social constraint. The original Nights are quite ribald, and public taste and mores in Victorian England would not tolerate their publication without ’bowdlerisation’, that is to say the expurgation or toning-down of sexual allusions and jokes. Galland had been constrained to make the same compromises for 18th-century France. The result was, to a mild degree, what the French call belles infidèles (beautiful but unfaithful). The omissions were eventually restored with a vengeance later in the 19th century by the version (in very quirky English) of Sir Richard Burton, but only by publishing it as an edition restricted to private subscribers.

2. Innumerable derivatives in the form of abridgements, versions for children or 'for family reading', and ‘imitations‘, that is to say newly invented stories in the same genre. There‘s nothing wrong with that; the Nights never were an untouchable classic. Galland himself collected and incorporated stories that were not in his source manuscript. Many of the derivatives are individual stories extracted from the collection. Of these last, the most popular have been the tales of Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin and his Magic Lamp.

3. Derivatives in other media: stage and even musical adaptations from early on, but above all the work of many famous book illustrators, for example Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898, an admirer of Burton - see image) and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939, in the ‘fairy story‘ tradition). (The Galland was illustrated by Gustave Doré.) Then, in the 20th century, came the film versions, culminating in the Disney animated Aladdin.

“All of this is very interesting,” I think I hear you muttering, “but what’s it got to do with Christmas?”
Ah, for that - if you haven’t already guessed the answer - you must be forbearing for one night more and read the concluding post tomorrow.

The Arabian Nights Entertainments: consisting of one thousand and one stories... Translated into French from the Arabian mss. by M. Galland ... and now done into English. The fourth edition. vol. 1-6. London: Andrew Bell, 1712-1715.

Grub Street is still there on the maps of London, but it’s now called Milton Street.

The Thousand and One Nights Commonly Called, in England, The Arabian Nights' Entertainments. A new translation from the Arabic with copious notes. By Edward William Lane. With six hundred woodcuts by William Harvey. London: Murray, 1839. An American edition of 1848 “for family reading“ can be read on Google Books.

Bowdlerize comes from the name of Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare.

A plain and literal translation of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, Now Entituled [sic] The Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night. With Introduction, Explanatory Notes on the Manners and Customs of Moslem Men and a Terminal Essay upon the History of The Nights by Richard F. Burton [1821-1890]. Benares: Kamashastra Society, 1885-8, 10 vols. Reissued in London "Printed by the Burton Society for private subscribers only." The original is a very expensive collectors’ item, but there’s a facsimile at Burton’s admiring but more circumspect wife published a bowdlerised version of it.

Disney's Aladdin. Adapted by Don Ferguson. New York: Mouse Works, 1993.

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