Monday, September 3, 2018

Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights by Paulo Lemos Horta - as interesting as it sounds

Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967) was pretty much what I hoped it would be – hard, really difficult.  Readers less interested in medieval conceptions of time might want to skip to Lecture IV, or V, except that one is mostly about Sartre, or VI.  I plan to look it over again and write something in early October.

Meanwhile, here’s an entirely different kind of literary criticism, Paulo Lemos Horta’s Marvellous Thieves: Secret Author of the Arabian Nights (2017), about the translation of The Arabian Nights into French, in the 18th century, and English, in the 19th.  Literary history.  Good stuff.

A chapter by chapter summary makes it clear what is in the book.

First, two chapters on Antoine Galland and Hanna Diyab, mostly about the latter.  Galland was the first translator of The Arabian Nights (1704-17) into French.  This was a landmark translation.  For a hundred years – more – Europe read The Arabian Nights in translations of French translations.  There was a puzzle about the so-called “orphan stories,” like “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” famous stories, that had no Arabic texts.  Galland acquired these stories from the Syrian traveller Diyab.  Arabic stories told in French by Diyab and then rewritten in French by Galland.  Complicated.

Diyab is interesting enough on his own to fill the chapters.  The discovery, only a decade ago, of his memoirs make the early chapters uniquely valuable.

Chapter 3 is about the first translation of The Arabian Nights into English from an Arabian manuscript.  It was done in India by Henry Torrens, a colonial administrator in India, in collaboration with an unknown number of now-anonymous Indian scholars.  Events in India made sure that this translation was never completed.  Too bad.  It was a real translation.

The ridiculous Egyptologist Edward Lane gets the next two chapters.  An odd bird, he translated The Arabian Nights in order to fill it with his insights about Egypt.  The book is as much notes as stories, notes about contemporary Egypt.  Large parts of the original are summarized, rearranged, pushed into the commentary.  Really strange.

The final two chapters cover the minor pre-Raphaelite poet John Payne and Victorian superstar Richard Burton, the authors of the next two English translations of The Arabian Nights, using the terms loosely.  Payne barely knew Arabic but at least his book was a real translation – from French and German versions!  Burton then openly plagiarized Torrens, Lane, and Payne, rewriting their texts in his own distinctive and bizarre style.  The style is his own, that is true.  “Stealing with Style,” that’s one of Horta’s chapter titles.  It is always great fun to read about Burton, but I do it with my jaw dropped.  He is an outrageous character.

Horta’s book, full of original material from the archives, has almost nothing to say about translation itself, nothing linguistic, for example, except in the way it demonstrates how the translations were inherently collaborative, often in complex and confusing ways.  Sometimes the translations were not translations at all.

He also take the value of The Arabian Nights for granted, as do I.  The greatest insights into the texts themselves are in the first two chapters, as Horta finds sources for pieces of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” and so on.  If a description of a palace feels more like Versailles than something in Persia, well, that’s right, Diyab was presented to Louis XIV.  This is true “world literature,” whatever that might be.

Horta’s books is as interesting as it sounds.


  1. I've known about the Kermode and have been wanting to read it. But somehow I missed Horta's book, or probably just forgot about it after reading a review. Thanks for the comments on it. I hope to get to it soon, as well as some of the books by and about Burton. You know how to hurt a guy's TBR stack.

  2. I used to have the Lane translations with all the notes, but don't know what happened to them.

  3. The notes, the notes - I really had had no idea that in these 19th century translations the important part was the notes. I had read a bit of Burton but not the notes.

    Dwight, you would get a lot out of this book. With those other Burton books, maybe more than me.

  4. Thanks. We'll see if and when I can get to that project. My TBR pile looks like a Jenga stack ready to topple, and that doesn't include several other "projects" I've wanted to tackle that are conveniently hidden in the bookcases around the house.

    Worse case...I read the Horta book...and it sounds like I still win.

  5. Belated welcome back AR(T)! I remember reading with prurient delight the free and steamy Mardrus’ version as a teen. In the years since then I’ve read other translations of the Arabian Nights, my favorite being Bencheikh and Miquel’s published by the Pléiade.

    Miquel speculates in his introduction that the Nights must have been composed in the decades between 749 (around the time the Abbasids rose to power in Persia) and the IXth Century. The earliest attestation of the Arabian Nights comes from an early Xth. Century, book belonging to the “1000 things you must know before…” genre by Mas’udi; which would seem to indicate that there was a certain level of notoriety and respect for the Nights around that time. And yet, mysteriously, somehow the Nights disappeared from the memory of Arabic literature until they were resuscitated centuries later by Galland in France.

    The explanation of that mystery can be found in the second literary mention of the Nights, near the end of that same Xth. Century by the librarian Ibn an Nadim. On his catalog (Fihrist) of known supernatural tales, he wrote that the Alf Khurafa (AKA One Thousand Extraordinary Tales, AKA The Arabian Nights) were works of poor style and cold rhetoric. In short, the Nights were a victim of what Borges called the superstitious ethics of the reader, “a general tendency of readers to look for or characterize a writer’s style (mannerisms) in order to appreciate a literary text” (as Rise of In Lieu of a Field Guide’s tersely put it).

    We could say about the Nights the same thing Borges wrote then about the Quixote, that they keep wining posthumous battles against their translators and survive each and every careless version. The German, English, or French ghost of the Nights is more alive than any stylist’s anxious verbal artifices.

  6. Right, not Classical Arabic. Not sophisticated stuff. The book had to survive in other ways. It did all right.