A new English version of “The Arabian Nights” is the first by a woman

The Thousand and One Nights Annotated. Translated by Yasmine Seale. Edited by Paulo Lemos Horta. Right of exploitation; 816 pages; $ 45 and £ 30

IIT’S A of the oldest fables in the world and among the most traveled. From 8th century India and Persia, “1001 Nights” (commonly known as “the Thousand and One Nights” in English) traveled through Iraq, Egypt and Syria before arriving in Western Europe. at the beginning of the 18th century. The first English translation directly from Arabic – by Henry Torrens, an officer in the British Army – appeared in 1838. Going from east to west and back again, this is perhaps the ultimate work. of world literature.

Still, this back-and-forth has had its drawbacks. Western adaptations have sometimes distorted the original tales, often to satisfy Orientalist fantasies of the Middle East. Meanwhile, although female peril and ingenuity are at the heart of the story, so far no woman has released a full English translation of the story cycle. All this makes this new edition, translated by Yasmine Seale, an Anglo-Syrian poet, discreetly capital.

The book asks a simple but powerful question: Could you, like Scheherazade, tell a story to save your life? After King Shahryar finds out that his wife has been unfaithful to him, he kills her and, in a fit of disgust against all women, begins to marry and murder another victim every day. When Scheherazade’s turn comes, she asks to tell a story before dying. He accepts and is captivated. Scheherazade stops before dawn, promising to continue the following night. And so on, for 1001 nights, until the king falls in love with her and she is spared.

Despite all the misogyny of the initial screenplay, Scheherazade appears as one of the most ingenious heroines in literature. But a lot can be lost in translation. Paulo Lemos Horta, historian of literature, says that for previous generations of English readers, tales were stained with racism and sexism. Edward Lane’s version of 1839-41 salivated over details of ornate palaces and titillating costumes. In an 1885 translation, says Horta, Richard Francis Burton “adds negative traits to women in stories” by removing “their positive or redemptive qualities.” Burton also added racist jokes, perhaps not entirely surprising to a 19th-century British explorer who measured African men’s penises on his expeditions.

These Victorian renderings were in turn based on an early 18th century French version by Antoine Galland. This included several well-known tales, such as “Aladdin’s Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” – which were not in the Arabic original. For centuries, scholars have believed Galland to be their main author. Recent research has shown that Hanna Diyab, a Syrian storyteller, told him about them in Paris. Galland would have adapted these “orphan stories” to appeal to Western readers, for example by drawing clearer lines between good and evil.

However, even for the most venerable works of fiction, new readings can shed light on new meanings and enduring truths. In 2017, Emily Wilson achieved this in a new translation of Homer’s “The Odyssey”, the first by a woman to be published in English. The new “Arabian Nights” – a selection of a full edition in the works – does the same. The role of Diyab is duly recognized. Sex, violence and unequal gender relations are still present, but while earlier versions objectified high female and male characters, such as Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his vizier Jaafar, homicidal sultans and jinn ruthless are now disarmed by female storytelling.

Take a passage about a stubborn woman who, in Burton’s rendering, states, “Fate cannot be avoided … what the woman wants, what she accomplishes.” In Mrs Seale’s new text, what seemed to be a female will becomes a noble independence: “He thought he had me and could keep me to himself, forgetting that what fortune has in store cannot.” be turned, nor what a woman wants.

Or consider “The Tale of the Bearer and the Three Women of Baghdad,” Ms. Seale’s favorite tale, in which the bearer of the title is, as she puts it, “astonished to learn that it is possible to have a good life without men “. Burton cut out a section in which women make jokes about the porter’s genitals; Mrs. Seale includes it. And while Burton’s doorman insists that “the pleasure of women without the man is insufficient”, his version is more impartial: “as the pleasure of men is insufficient without women, so it is with them. women without men ”.

However, evolution has always been part of the story of “The Thousand and One Nights”. In the Arab world, the simple language, the anonymity of the text, and the tradition of oral storytelling made it appear less as part of the literary canon than of the surrounding culture. “It’s hard to pinpoint a precise moment when you hear about these stories for the first time, because you absorb them almost by osmosis,” says Omar El Akkad, a novelist. “Iconography is everywhere. Raised in a family of distinguished writers – her great-uncle was the beloved Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani – Ms. Seale was initially reluctant to undertake such a well-worn project.

As it stands, his mastery of Arabic, English and French, as well as his poet’s ear, have produced a new lyrical and accessible text. Mr. Horta provides annotations that contextualize his choices, and has selected hundreds of illustrations that allow readers to visually travel through the tales and their history. Even so, this is not the last word. “The more time I spend with this text, the less I really know what it is,” reflects Ms Seale. “It’s so changeable and shimmering and unstable.”

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Publishing under the title “A Whole New World”


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