Completed: 17 September 2010
In 1704 the first published appearance of what came to be known as The Arabian Nights Entertainments occurred in an European language. From 1704 through to 1717 twelve volumes were published in France under the title of Les mille et une nuit, M. Antoine Galland (1646 – 1715) translating most of the stories. They were tremendously popular. In English the first volume, translated from the French, appeared in 1706. They proved to be equally popular, so much so that the stories of the Arabian Nights have entered into the cultural psyche of the Western world.
In 2008 Malcolm Lyons and Penguin Books published a new translation of the Arabian Nights. A full translation in English had not been done in over 100 years. The appearance of Eastern Dreams is timely. For those interested in going beyond just the stories and into looking at the history of the text, Paul Nurse’s book will do an admiral job of it. The history of the Nights is simultaneously complex and simple. For a book that has been tremendously influential in Western society, very little is known about its origins. The oldest surviving fragment of the Nights is from th 9th century CE. It consists of a mere dozen lines but those lines are recognisably the story of Shahrazad. There are a couple of mentions of a work that maybe the Nights in some 10th century book lists. The first actual occurrence of the full Arabic title is in the 12th century. The most extensive surviving manuscript is from the 14th century. That’s pretty much it. In a great coincidence of fate, the Galland translation was made from the oldest and longest surviving manuscript in existence.
The question that has intrigued me and that Nurse explores is the nature of the work that is The Arabian Nights. Does such a work actually exist or is it just a construct, primarily driven by the West? Printed editions of the Nights did not appear in Arabic until after the work began being printed in English. I mention above that the Lyons translation is the first complete one in 100 years. That is a statement full of complications. At the heart of the Nights is the question of “complete”. Nurse explores that question throughout his book. What is the authoritative, original text of the Nights? It’s a moving target. For example, prior to Galland, the Sindbad stories were never associated with the Nights. After Galland, both in the West and the East the stories became part of the Nights corpus.
Some of the most popular stories, i.e. Aladdin and Ali Baba, have no corresponding Arabic manuscript. They only appear in Arabic after Galland’s work appears. It appears that Galland’s work began influencing the Arabic tradition, which was then fed back to the West. This delightful process means that generations of scholars will earn their living debating the origins of the Nights and trying to untangle the threads of the stories and where they came from. There has been a 300 year hunt for a copy of the complete Arabian Nights. Even today scholars are attempting to recreate the original text of the Nights. Personally, I just really enjoy the stories.
I also enjoyed Nurse’s book. It is a good generalist introduction to the history of the Nights. He does not bury the reader with the obscure and technical minutia that an academic work would. He generally stays away from the politics surrounding this work but is not ignorant of it. Post-colonialism, political correctness and cultural appropriation are all touched upon. Nurse includes the most extensive biography of Antoine Galland that I have seen in English. Galland is extremely important as he introduced the Nights to the west. A better understanding of the man helped my understanding of the Nights. He also does a fine job of introducing us to the 19th century Victorian translators who pretty much gave us the Nights as we know it today. Some of their translations continue to be printed and read (Burton, Lane) others have fated into obscurity (Scott, Payne).