In an era of increasing protectionism and nationalism, it may seem surprising (though encouraging!) that translated literature is actually on the rise in the United States. The Translation Database, a collaboration between Three Percent and Publishers Weekly, has tracked a marked increase in translated books published in recent years, from 383 in 2008 to 734 in 2017. The National Book Awards added a translation category in 2018 to reflect the growing interest, and imprints devoted to publishing translated books gain more influence every year. This trend is very exciting for those of us who work with foreign literature—engaging more directly with other cultures leads to more nuanced and open understanding, and the more people who read foreign literature, the more perspectives and collaborations are introduced. Most of the translated literature being published is new, or at least modern, but occasionally old friends we thought we knew, like Alf Laylah wa Laylah (The Thousand and One Nights), are also reinterpreted and refreshed.
Ever since Alf Laylah wa Laylah was published in French by the Orientalist Antoine Galland, in the 18th century, it has been one of the most read, retold, reimagined, and excerpted works in circulation among America, Europe, and the Middle East. From the raunchy English translation by Richard Burton; to the many and varied children’s versions; to the pared-down scholarly edition of Muhsin Mahdi, translated by Husain Haddawy; and finally to Malcolm and Ursula Lyons’s updated translation of the Arabic manuscript used by Galland, it would seem that, at least for an anglophone reader, every base had been covered a decade ago. As two new translations prove, however, such an assumption would be wrong.
The recent publications of A Hundred and One Nights and Aladdin reflect not just the tales’ universal popular appeal but also a growing interest in the “left behind” narratives of the Arabic popular literary tradition among Arabic literature scholars. Because a great deal of the attention devoted to Alf Laylah has been focused on “authenticity”—which manuscripts are the oldest, which tales show the least “outside influence”—material considered irrelevant to these concerns has largely been ignored, despite a large corpus of what we could call “popular,” “folk,” or “non-elite” literature written in Arabic. As Bruce Fudge puts it in the introduction to his Hundred and One Nights translation, “there exist vast quantities of this type of Arabic literature. Libraries in Europe and the Middle East contain untold numbers of neglected manuscripts, often not even catalogued let alone edited or published.”
Lately, however, there has been increasing interest in these tales: for example, in addition to the Library of Arabic Literature project at NYU Press, which published Fudge’s translation, Penguin has released a translation by Malcolm Lyons of the 10th-century Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, a collection of fantastical stories, and Melanie Magidow is working on a translation of the exploits of the heroine Dhāt al-Himmah, one of the many popular epics that moved between oral and written form in the premodern Middle East.
The two translations under consideration here are part of this reclaiming of the Arabic popular heritage, starting at opposite and often discounted ends of the convoluted life cycle of Alf Laylah. A Hundred and One Nights, Fudge points out, has been seen as a mere abridgment of Alf Laylah, which possibly explains why it has never before been translated. Fudge argues, however, that it is not a condensation but rather a predecessor of the more popular long version, with its own thematic concerns and cohesive structure.
On the other, quite recent, end of Alf Laylah’s timeline is Aladdin. The main scholarly attitude has been that it is an 18th-century fake. It was one of several tales added to Galland’s manuscript from the mouth of a Syrian acquaintance named Ḥannā Diyāb, and most translations and studies have viewed the story as inauthentic and either omitted it or put minimal effort toward drawing out its intricacies. As Paulo Lemos Horta notes in his editor’s introduction to Yasmine Seale’s new translation, many later scholars have wondered whether this friend existed at all, or if the later tales were a product of Galland’s own imagination. The discovery, in 2006, of autobiographical notes written by Diyāb has put those particular fears to rest.1
Nonetheless, questions of origins and authenticity still loom large in Aladdin’s history: Is it French, or is it Syrian? Did Diyāb invent it himself, or is it something he heard growing up in his homeland? These concerns cannot be answered with any sense of certainty (though Arafat A. Razzaque’s excellent article in Ajam magazine explores them thoroughly), but with a tale so universally appealing, do they really matter? In the case of adaptations such as Disney’s, the answer may be yes: as a stand-in for the Middle East in general, the Orientalist fantasy has done damage to real communities. But Horta’s contextualizing introduction and Seale’s straightforward translation have convinced me that the joy can be in the telling, rather than the origins, of this story.
Though Alf Laylah and A Hundred and One Nights share the main characters of the frame story (the murderous king and the storyteller Shahrazād), the two collections have little else in common. Of the nightly stories Shahrazād tells to save her life, only two are the same, while two others are related but diverge significantly. The rest are entirely different. There are even important discrepancies between the frame stories: Alf Laylah describes King Shahriyār discovering his wife’s unfaithfulness during a visit from his similarly afflicted brother, after which he decides to marry a woman every night and kill her in the morning. In A Hundred and One Nights, the unnamed Indian king’s rampage is set off by his annual “beauty contest,” in which he challenges his court to find a man more handsome than himself. One year, an old man of the court is convinced he has found a winner in Khorasan. However, the young man witnesses his wife making love to a slave as he is about to leave to be presented to the king, and his anger and grief cause him to lose his good looks. The old man covers for him, saying he fell ill on the journey, until the young man happens to witness the king’s wife also being unfaithful and decides his own situation is not so bad. When the king sees the change in him, he demands to know the reason. Then the tale proceeds similarly to the Alf Laylah version: after seeing his wife’s infidelity for himself, the king kills everyone involved and begins marrying a woman every night and killing her the next day, until Shahrazād distracts him with her tales. Fudge traces this version of the frame story to an older Chinese-Sanskrit origin, which is a main pillar in his argument that A Hundred and One Nights is older than Alf Laylah.
I find this argument more persuasive than the “abridgment” theory, though I am not convinced that accurately tracing the lineage of a narrative is possible, or even useful, with a tale that seems to have circulated broadly, freely changing according to the whims of the copyist or storyteller, throughout the premodern world. I have similar doubts about Fudge’s insistence that A Hundred and One Nights “consists of a written transmission”:
These collections and the tales they contain were not part of an oral tradition. A Hundred and One Nights exists in seven known manuscripts, and despite a number of differences, sometimes quite significant, between the different versions of a given tale or in the overall contents, much of the material is identical, virtually word for word. Such consistency does not occur with orally transmitted folktales.
There can be, however, incredible consistency in orally transmitted folktales. It could be argued that the entire theory of oral-formulaic composition began with Parry and Lord’s astonishment at the consistency of Bosnian oral storytellers. The seven known manuscripts of A Hundred and One Nights may indeed be a freestanding written corpus, but I would not discount the possibility of oral interference/performance/transmission alongside the written versions.
Because scholarship on European civilization has traditionally privileged the written over the oral, considering it to be a later development and thus more trustworthy and more complex, there has been a tendency to apply the same standard to Islamic culture and emphasize its written tradition, presumably to demonstrate its sophistication. However, increasing research on the dynamics of literary salons as well as the publishing industry in the medieval Islamic world has shown that the interplay of oral and written transmission was far more complex and variable than a simple evolutionary trajectory—stories often went back and forth between the different media, changing along the way.2 Denying even the possibility of this fascinating dynamic is puzzling to me, and I think it does a disservice to this unique material.
Regardless of these minor academic quibbles, for someone who is familiar with the text of Alf Laylah, reading Fudge’s translation of A Hundred and One Nights is a joy—like meeting the beloved grandparent of an old friend and finding that the similarities between the two make you understand your existing friendship more deeply, while their differences let you appreciate both as individuals.
Seale and Horta’s version of Aladdin, while clearly resembling other versions of the same tale, still diverges markedly from the one most popularly known in the West. In Disney’s Aladdin, the eponymous character is a street kid with a heart of gold, a “diamond in the rough.” His essential goodness grants him the ability to enter the treasure cave in which he finds the genie who changes his life with three wishes (one of which the soft-hearted Aladdin uses to set the genie free). His love interest, Princess Jasmine, is an independent woman chafing at her father’s command to marry out of duty instead of for love.
In Seale’s translation, working from Galland’s original French, Aladdin has none of the redeeming “hidden” qualities Disney ascribes to him. He is lazy, rude, and ungrateful to his long-suffering parents, and though he is used by a magician to enter the treasure cave, it is not because of any “hidden” moral quality, but because the magician thinks that no one will miss such a boy “of no consequence.” The jinni he finds inside the lamp is not a friendly ally but a terrifying and unknowable creature. Aladdin is not offered three wishes, but rather granted unlimited favors so long as he holds on to the lamp. And in this case, Princess Badr al-Budur is perfectly willing to go along with her father’s plans for marriage, before magical interference from Aladdin’s jinni ruins the first several nights after her wedding.
Notwithstanding these differences in its characters, the basic arc of the story is the same: Aladdin, despite showing no inclination toward goodness before he possesses the lamp, seems to become wiser and more capable once he does, winning the admiration of the princess, her father, and the people of his city. As Horta explains, this Arabic storytelling trope of a hero being “created” through contact with the supernatural rather than “revealed” has been noted by translators and scholars such as Tzvetan Todorov. The princess, despite not having shown much initiative before her marriage to Aladdin, successfully resists the attentions of the evil sorcerer who kidnaps her, and it is she who carries out the ruse that allows her and her bridegroom to escape from his clutches. As in the Disney version, the two proceed to live happily ever after.
Two new translations treat material from the margins of the “Alf Laylah” tradition, challenging us to revisit the values and motivations that have been associated with this tradition in the past.
Fudge and Seale approach their subjects from very different angles. Fudge’s translation of A Hundred and One Nights is a scholarly one, with a lengthy introduction including not only his arguments for his material predating Alf Laylah but also a note on the text tracing various manuscripts and linguistic anomalies. The edition displays the Arabic and the English on facing pages, allowing readers who know both languages to assess his decisions. This transparency is perhaps the most valuable aspect of the edition, especially given the cycles of invisible revision and bowdlerization in the long history of Alf Laylah translations. The indexes, appendices, and introductory material also offer a great deal to scholars looking to use this volume for their research. Of course, for the casual reader, all of this also increases the heft, leading to a book of over 400 pages.
As it is a scholarly translation, Fudge purposely maintains elements of the oddities frequently found in this genre. For example, he keeps the occasional intrusion of the phrase, “Shaykh Fihrās the Philosopher spoke,” in addition to marking where Shahrazād stops and starts her narration, which reminds the reader that this is a tale within a tale within a tale—the outermost teller is said Shaykh Fihrās, who is narrating the entire Hundred and One Nights (including Shahrazād’s story) to a certain King Dārim. Though this is an authentic part of the narrative, it does interrupt the flow.
Fudge also attempts to reproduce, every now and then, some formulaic rhyming phrases, like the ubiquitous story-ending he translates as “until there came to them that from which there is no fleeing, and praise be to God, Lord of all being,” something of the equivalent of “and they lived happily ever after” in English-language fairy tales. Though the scholar in me admires the effort to reproduce an authentic element, especially one I see as evidence of oral storytelling influence, the phrase reads awkwardly in English and may be off-putting for the casual reader.
Another authentic feature that is perhaps more important is the frequent breaks in Shahrazād’s narration, in which she leaves the king hanging until the next night. It is an essential part of the frame story the tale shares with Alf Laylah, so keeping this element of course makes sense, but it interrupts the reading experience every few short pages (seemingly much shorter than an entire night’s worth of storytelling). Such issues are, I think, products of walking the line between scholarly and popular, as the Library of Arabic Literature series attempts to do, and though they were noticeable to me, they did not detract substantially from the pleasure of reading such a thoughtful translation.
Seale’s translation of Aladdin comes at her material very differently. Questions of various manuscripts or Arabic language level do not apply to this story. The “original manuscript,” so far as anyone knows, was Galland’s French edition of Alf Laylah, and the tale itself came from the imagination or recollection of his acquaintance Ḥannā Diyāb. This gives Seale a bit more interpretive freedom. For example, though she does place the story within the framework of Shahrazād’s storytelling, with a prologue and epilogue, she does not interrupt the tale with nightly divisions. Instead, she splits it into chapters whose titles preview the action to come, like in a modern novel.
Because the book’s sole introduction is written by the editor rather than the translator, we get very little insight into why Seale made her translation choices, and I found myself wanting to know more about this aspect. However, the slim volume is so compelling and smoothly written that it took me less than a day to finish, and the casual reader will be glad to find it unencumbered by elements extraneous to the story itself.
Translations of contemporary works are important; however, fresh translations of well-worn material can be even more impactful. Original translations introduce us to new ideas and broaden our minds; reinterpretations challenge the ideas already ingrained there. Both of these new translations treat material from the margins of the Alf Laylah tradition, challenging us to revisit the values and motivations that have been associated with this tradition in the past. Bruce Fudge’s translation of A Hundred and One Nights contributes to many interesting scholarly discussions of provenance and linguistics, all in a refreshingly contemporary rendition. Yasmine Seale makes a tale that is almost too familiar new again in her smooth, dark, exciting interpretation of Aladdin. As interest in translation and in the Arabic popular tradition continues to grow, I hope we will see more such varied takes, even and especially on works we thought we already knew.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.
- For a French translation of these notes, see Elie Kallas, “Aventures de Hanna Diyab avec Paul Lucas et Antoine Galland (1707–1710),” Romano-Arabica, no. 15 (2015), pp. 255–67. ↩
- For more on this, see Samer Ali, Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), and Konrad Hirschler, The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices (Edinburgh University Press, 2011). ↩