The history of Arabian Nights is both long and complex, and to try to actually compare the many translations is more than we can manage. Our goal for this page is to introduce a selection of excellent English retellings, primarily for children. To that end, we're compiling a list of both editors/retellers and illustrators, some of whose illustrations have been reused in various places.
Sir Richard Burton compiled one of the most comprehensive collections of the tales in 1885 (1001 stories in ten volumes, then six supplemental volumes!). Reprints are of necessity selections, so it's important to evaluate which tales are included.
Interestingly, Some of the stories commonly associated with the Arabian Nights—particularly "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves"—were not part of the collection in its original Arabic versions but were added to the collection by Frenchman Antoine Galland after he heard them from the Syrian Maronite Christian storyteller Hanna Diab on Diab's visit to Paris. Other stories, such as "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor", had an independent existence before being added to the collection.
Main article: Translations of One Thousand and One Nights
Sindbad the sailor and Ali Baba and the forty thieves by William Strang, 1896
The first European version (1704–1717) was translated into French by Antoine Galland from an Arabic text of the Syrian recension and other sources. This 12-volume work, Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en français ('The Thousand and one nights, Arab stories translated into French'), included stories that were not in the original Arabic manuscript. "Aladdin's Lamp", and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (as well as several other lesser-known tales) appeared first in Galland's translation and cannot be found in any of the original manuscripts. He wrote that he heard them from the Christian Maronite storyteller Hanna Diab during Diab's visit to Paris. Galland's version of the Nights was immensely popular throughout Europe, and later versions were issued by Galland's publisher using Galland's name without his consent.
As scholars were looking for the presumed "complete" and "original" form of the Nights, they naturally turned to the more voluminous texts of the Egyptian recension, which soon came to be viewed as the "standard version". The first translations of this kind, such as that of Edward Lane (1840, 1859), were bowdlerized. Unabridged and unexpurgated translations were made, first by John Payne, under the title The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (1882, nine volumes), and then by Sir Richard Francis Burton, entitled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885, ten volumes) – the latter was, according to some assessments, partially based on the former, leading to charges of plagiarism.
In view of the sexual imagery in the source texts (which Burton emphasized even further, especially by adding extensive footnotes and appendices on Oriental sexual mores) and the strict Victorian laws on obscene material, both of these translations were printed as private editions for subscribers only, rather than published in the usual manner. Burton's original 10 volumes were followed by a further six (seven in the Baghdad Edition and perhaps others) entitled The Supplemental Nights to the Thousand Nights and a Night, which were printed between 1886 and 1888. It has, however, been criticized for its "archaic language and extravagant idiom" and "obsessive focus on sexuality" (and has even been called an "eccentric ego-trip" and a "highly personal reworking of the text").
Later versions of the Nights include that of the French doctor J. C. Mardrus, issued from 1898 to 1904. It was translated into English by Powys Mathers, and issued in 1923. Like Payne's and Burton's texts, it is based on the Egyptian recension and retains the erotic material, indeed expanding on it, but it has been criticized for inaccuracy.
Muhsin Mahdi's 1984 Leiden edition, based on the Galland Manuscript, was rendered into English by Husain Haddawy (1990). This translation has been praised as "very readable" and "strongly recommended for anyone who wishes to taste the authentic flavour of those tales." An additional second volume of Arabian nights translated by Haddawy, composed of popular tales not present in the Leiden edition, was published in 1995. Both volumes were the basis for a single-volume reprint of selected tales of Haddawy's translations.
In 2008 a new English translation was published by Penguin Classics in three volumes. It is translated by Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons with introduction and annotations by Robert Irwin. This is the first complete translation of the Macnaghten or Calcutta II edition (Egyptian recension) since Burton's. It contains, in addition to the standard text of 1001 Nights, the so-called "orphan stories" of Aladdin and Ali Baba as well as an alternative ending to The seventh journey of Sindbad from Antoine Galland's original French. As the translator himself notes in his preface to the three volumes, "[N]o attempt has been made to superimpose on the translation changes that would be needed to 'rectify' ... accretions, ... repetitions, non sequiturs and confusions that mark the present text," and the work is a "representation of what is primarily oral literature, appealing to the ear rather than the eye." The Lyons translation includes all the poetry (in plain prose paraphrase) but does not attempt to reproduce in English the internal rhyming of some prose sections of the original Arabic. Moreover, it streamlines somewhat and has cuts. In this sense it is not, as claimed, a complete translation.
RETELLINGS WE'RE WORKING TO COMPARE:
1838-1840, 1859 (revision): One Thousand and One Nights, by Edward William Lane (translator), Joseph Smith (illustrator)
1882: New Arabian Nights, by Robert Louis Stevenson
1899: Arabian Nights Entertainments, by William Heath Robinson, Helen Stratton, A.D. McCormick (illustrated by A.L. Davis & A.E. Norbury)
1898: Arabian Nights Entertainments, by Andrew Lang, Vera Bock
1907: Laurence Housman (illustrated by Edmund Dulac)
1909: Kate Douglas Wiggin & Nora A. Smith (illustrated by Maxfield Parrish)
1917: Rene Bull (illustrator)
1923: Padraic Colum (Eric Pape or Lynd Ward)
1925: Arabian Nights, by Orton Lowe (illustrated by Adeline H. Bolton)
1946: Earle Goodenow (illustrator)
1951: E. Dixon (Joan Kiddell-Monroe)
1957: Amabel Williams-Ellis (illustrated by Pauline Baynes)
1957: Margaret Seifer and Irving Shapiro (illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren)
1963: Mamoru Funai (illustrator)
1977: Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, by N.J. Dawood (illustrated by William Harvey)
1980s: Brian Alderson (illustrated by Michael Foreman)
1982: Geraldine McCaughrean (illustrated by Stephen Lavis)
1995: Arabian Nights: Three Tales, by Deborah Nourse Lattimore (reteller & illustrator)
Did you find this review helpful?