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Sheherezade?s Ventriloquists PDF E-mail

Ever since Antoine Galland published Les Mille et une nuits in 1704, the story of Sheherezade and her spellbinding narrative powers has inspired immensely diverse adaptations in the West, from Disney’s Aladdin to Pier Pasolini’s Il Fiore delle mille e una notte, a soft-core porno with Oriental conceits. There have been bowdlerized versions fit for bedtime stories and other, bawdier versions, like Sir Richard Burton's Arabian Nights, passed around by randy schoolboys.

Although many classics have undergone profound metamorphoses over time, nothing compares to the variety of the Nights. The irony is that a narrative underscored by a theme of matrimonial fidelity has produced some of the most faithless translations that we have today. But is fidelity a moot point when the source text is itself a translation, transcription, and transmogrification? Since there is no one definitive source for the Nights, doesn't that make it fair game for a translator's whimsy? There is not just one manuscript of the Nights, but four; and the Breslau, Calcutta I, Calcutta II, and Bulaq editions resemble one another, but, like independent-minded quadruplets, do not always agree. To complicate matters even more, these manuscripts are most likely translations from the Persian Hazar Afsana (A Thousand Stories), an ancient text that is now lost but gets mention in 10th century annals of Arabic literature. And since many of the tales appear to be Indian in origin, some scholars of the Nights posit that the Hazar Afsana was itself a translation from various Indian sources.

It is possible to translate the Nights, no matter how nebulous its author may be, in an irresponsible way. The most marked difference between translation and writing is that the translator is representing somebody else's work. The translation will still say "by xx.” Although there is no specific name affiliated with the Nights, the understanding is that they issue from a particular culture— and to misrepresent that culture is to be a sloppy scholar. And, at the risk of sounding conservative and boring, I would argue that translation is first and foremost a scholarly endeavor.

Take Sir Richard Burton's translation of the Nights, for example. Though I am not anywhere close to being able to read Arabic, as he was, it is clear that his interpretation of the Nights is colored by anti-Semitism and misogyny. The women in Burton's Arabian Nights (something of a misnomer, since the Arabic, Alf Layla wa Layla, means "the one thousand and one nights," and many of the stories are not Arabian at all, but Indian, Chinese, and Persian) are sadistic and conniving, while in the J.C. Mardrus translation, they are seraphic, passive girls. Mardrus's translation, which appeared some xx years after Burton's, is steeped in fin de siècle decadence, with sumptuous titles such as “The Tale of the Sea Rose of the Girl of China,” “The Pistachio Oil Cream and the Legal Point,” and “Windows on the Garden of History.” These are not to be found anywhere in the other translations— those by Haddawy, Scott, Burton, or Payne, leading me to believe that these were inventions of his own fancy. Same for the Burton story cluster "The Craft and Malice of Women, or the Tale of the King, His Son, His Concubine, and the Seven Viziers.”

Such translator intervention often has the effect of distancing the text from the reader. In the case of Galland, there is a prevalent sense of the translator as tour guide, pointing out the customs and peculiarities of the Arab world. In “Shéhérazade/Galland ou la narration des nourritures terrestres,” Abdelhaq Anoun remarks that Galland’s tone is not just distancing, but imposes a judgment as well.
... every translated word, by virtue of having a semantic value in a foreign language, creates an effect in meaning that grafts onto the original text. We can call it the foreigner’s tone, the tone of someone who is judging from outside the game, contemplating the spectacle of our customs. In any case, in the context of the Mille et une nuits, the French translator’s attitude in part reconstructs the fantasy of the oriental banquet, directing a cultural projection onto a reality that does not exist, or at least is not shared. The translator’s forced subjectivity openly establishes a point of view value.[1]

It is not always the voice of Sheherezade, or the voices of the characters whose stories she is indirectly narrating, nor that of the 14th century transcriptionist who penned the Syrian manuscript, but of an 18th century Frenchman.

In some instances, the narrator refers to “Oriental” customs, assuming the authority of expertise on how things are done in the Orient. In the passage that describes Sheherezade getting ready to tell Shariyar the first tale, or the story of the genie and the merchant, Galland writes, “The sultan lay down with Sheherezade on a platform that was raised up high, in the manner of Oriental monarchs.”[2] The assumption is that the reader is familiar with the ways in which monarchs of the Orient sit, and that monarchs of the Orient, as a rather homogenous and undifferentiated group, all adhere to the same customs.

Just a little more than two hundred years after Galland, Mardrus introduced Europe to “une traduction complète et fidèle des Mille nuits et une nuit.” Joseph Charles Mardrus was a French physician who was born in Cairo and worked abroad for the French government in Morocco and Asia. While Galland’s texts were fit for audiences of all ages, Mardrus emphasized the erotic aspects of the Arabian Nights, much like his English counterpart and contemporary Burton. When the narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu recalls his first taste of the Nights, he mentions that his mother gave him two translations, the Galland and the Mardrus. “But, after casting her eye over the two translations, my mother would have preferred that I should stick to Galland’s, albeit hesitating to influence me because of her respect for intellectual liberty” (Proust 318).

Although it was certainly less steeped in the belle infidèle translation mode of Galland’s time, Mardrus’s translation had its own flavor that reflected the preferences of its translator and the translator’s literary environment. The prose is ornate and sumptuous, and it is no surprise that quintessentially decadent artists like Maxfield Parrish and Ducat illustrated the first Mardrus editions. Irwin writes “that the stories appear at times to have been written by Oscar Wilde or Stéphane Mallarmé. Mardrus’s version of the Arabian tales was a belated product of fin-de-siecle taste, a portrait of a fantasy Orient, compounded of opium reveries, jeweled dissipation, lost paradises, melancholy opulence and odalisques pining in gold cages” (Irwin 38). While Galland’s translation was “castrated,” as Payne called it, Mardrus’s is over-eroticized. In the story of King Shariyar and King Shazaman, the two royal brothers encounter a woman who is captive of a genie, and when he falls asleep she begs them to make love to her. In most translations, it is stated simply as that. But in the Mardrus translation, the imagery is more graphic: “’Come, pierce me violently with your lances,’” (Mardrus/ Mathers 4) she asks. Later, after Shariyar and Sheherezade have wed and Dinayazad is waiting for her moment to ask her sister to begin telling her stories, most translations leave it up to the reader to determine what transpires in the nuptial chamber. However, Mardrus makes it explicit that “the King rose and, taking the maiden Shahrazad, ravished her virginity” (Mardrus/Mathers 9).

Lingering on details of deflowering (the word “virginity” appears in the Mardrus/Mathers translation at least 19 times in the first volume alone), the translation presents a somewhat skewed picture of Arab sexuality. In order to compare translations, I have selected a story that is common to all of them, “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad.” Looking at a single story that is common to all five translations makes it possible to get a rough idea of the translators’ various strategies. “The Tale of the Three Ladies and the Porter of Bagdad” is in the Mardrus/ Mathers, Galland, Burton, Lane, Lang, Scott, and Haddawy translations. Burton makes the ladies out to be sadistic; in Haddawy’s translation, they are rambunctious; in Mardrus’s, they are a pedophile’s dream; and in Galland’s and Lane’s, they are noble and witty.

In other versions, the details of this scene are quite different. In the Haddawy version, for example, she is not lying on a bed, but stands up from a couch; and it is not witchcraft, but wisdom, which are spelled out in her features, and have no affiliations with Babylonia.

In the middle stood a large pool full of water... and at the far end stood a couch of black juniper wood... The curtain was unfastened, and a dazzling girl emerged, with genial charm, wise mien, and features as radiant as the moon... (Haddawy 69)

In the Haddawy translation, “girl” and “lady” are used interchangeably, while in Mardrus’s, the females are consistently identified as girls. As for Burton’s depiction of this scene, it is somewhat clumsy, and it is not entirely clear whether the woman is intelligent, or if she is a lovely muse. This particular passage of Burton’s is frequently cited as indicative of how his attempts to reproduce the sounds and tones of Arabic were often at the expense of eloquence: “Sitting on this dias was a glistening lady with a brilliantly beaming brow, the dream of philosophy... Rising from the couch, she stepped forward with a graceful swaying gait until she reached the middle of the salon... “(Burton 51)

In all of the versions, a porter is hired by a beautiful woman who stocks up on vast quantities of wine and delicacies. He follows her to her home, where she invites him in and introduces him to two other gorgeous ladies—the encounter with the third has been described above. On the way, in the Burton translation, the lady cuffs him on the ears, orders him, and reprimands him for asking questions. In the Galland and Haddawy renditions, she laughs and smiles frequently, and treats the porter with respect and kindness. The porter asks the ladies if he can partake of their feast with them. By reciting some verses of poetry, he wins their assent, but with one condition. In the Burton translation, the first lady says, “ are not to ask any questions about things that do not concern you, and you will be soundly flogged for any undue forwardness’” (Burton 52). In the Payne translation, the porter is also threatened with being beaten. This similarity, which is probably just one of many, may be attributed to the fact that Payne and Burton worked off of one another. Burton copied much of Payne, who only published five hundred copies of his own translation, which is dedicated to Burton. On the other hand, one of the volumes of Burton’s translations is dedicated to Payne.

Such threats of being flogged or beaten are absent from the Galland, Mardrus, and Haddawy translations, making it seem that Burton interjected such details of female malice with no regard for the original. In the Haddawy translation, the girls actually speak with great graciousness and eloquence.

’How can we manage that, being girls who keep our business to ourselves, for we fear to entrust our secrets where they may not be kept. We have read in some book what ibn al-Tammam has said:

Your own secret to none reveal;
It will be lost when it is told.
If your own breast cannot conceal,
How can another better hold?” (Haddawy 71)

In the Mardrus translation, there is likewise no threat of physical violence; instead, the girls (the Mardrus version, in fact, is not called “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” but “The Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad”) take the opportunity to mention that they are virgins. Another detail that is interesting to note is what the first does just before setting the table. In the following translation, she clasps the porter’s waist. But in the Galland version, she cinches the belt around her waist, and in the others, she loosens the belt.

... we are virgins and so are fearful of confiding ourselves to the indiscretion of man? We also have read the poets, and they say: ‘Confide in none; a secret told is a secret spoiled.’ So saying, she rose and, after clasping his waist, began to arrange the flasks, to clarify and pour the wine, and to set places for the feast near a pool of water in the centre of the hall. (Mathers/ Mardrus 53)

In the Scott translation:
"What we have once given," said she, "to reward those who have served us, we never take back. My friend, in consenting to your staying with us, I must forewarn you, that it is not the only condition we impose upon you that you keep inviolable the secret we may entrust to you, but we also require you to attend to the strictest rules of good manners." During this address, the charming Amene put off the apparel she went abroad with, and fastened her robe to her girdle that she might act with the greater freedom; she then brought in several sorts of meat, wine, and cups of gold (Scott 1).

In the Lang edition, they are exceedingly polite as well:

"But listen, friend," said Zobeida, "if we grant your request, it is only on condition that you behave with the utmost politeness, and that you keep the secret of our way of living, which chance has revealed to you." Then they all sat down to table, which had been covered by Amina with the dishes she had bought (Lang 1).

“The Three Ladies of Bagdad and the Porter” is a rather racy story, but Burton and Mardrus managed to embellish, while Galland characteristically censored. In the next scene, the lady whom the porter met first—the one who had purchased all of the victuals—prepares to set the table. In the Galland version, she goes to change her clothes, and then they eat and drink their fill and are soon joined by three wandering calendars, who take turns entertaining them with their tales. In the other versions, however, the time between the meal and the arrival of the calendars is spent in nude frolicking, and this did not fit in with what Borges has called Galland’s “scandalous decorum,” and so this scene is conspicuously absent from Galland’s version.

In both the Haddawy and Burton editions, the three ladies and the porter cavort in the nude, splashing in the indoor fountain and teasing one another by making up silly names for each other’s genitals like “the basil bush,” “the husked sesame,” and “the Inn of Abu Masrur,” then engaging in unspecified biting and kissing. While Burton’s translation is generally recognized as the most sexually explicit version, it is actually Mardrus’s, in this particular instance, that furnishes the highest number of erotic details. Because these details are absent from the Burton and the Haddawy editions, it seems safe to assume that they are of Mardrus’s invention. Sometimes, Madrus’s imagery is excessive, as in the passage where he describes how they “went on drinking until the grape sat throned above their reason” (Mardrus/ Mathers 54).

Such intrusions by the translator, while a creative right, sometimes have more political implications, as with Burton’s depiction of women as generally being disposed to malice. Burton has also been criticized for being anti-Semitic. For instance, the Jewish physician in “The Hunchback’s Tale” is depicted as avaricious in the Burton translation, but not in Haddawy’s or Galland’s. A couple brings a hunchback who has choked at their table to a Jewish physician, and give him a down payment for his services. In Haddawy, this is a welcome surprise for the physician: “When the Jew saw the quarter-dinar as a fee for merely going downstairs, he was pleased and in his joy rose hastily in the dark...” (Haddawy 209). In the Burton translation, however, the translator imposes a judgment on the physician:
As soon as the Jew saw the quarter dinar he rejoiced and rose quickly in his greed of gain and went forth hurriedly in the dark...” (Burton 158). The Payne translation reads much like the Haddawy, and in the Scott translation, the implication is not that the physician is greedy, but that he is accustomed to having patients who do not pay. The passage reads, “The doctor was transported with joy; being paid beforehand, he thought it must needs be a good patient, and should not be neglected” (Scott 1).

What I intend to demonstrate from this example is not only that Burton was a man of serious prejudices, but how certain elements of the translations can play into preconceptions of the target text’s culture and misrepresent the original text. This is why I propose reading the translations as more indicative of the translators and the translators’ culture than as revealing something to us about the culture from which the text originated.

Conclusion: High Fidelity

To erect the palace of The Thousand and One Nights it took generations of men, and those men are our benefactors, as we have inherited this inexhaustible book, this book capable of so much metamorphosis (Borges).

The Nights is one of the best-known frame narratives, or “Chinese box” plot structures. The story of Sheherezade telling tales to save her life sets the stage for all of the subsidiary tales, which fit into one another like nesting Russian dolls. In many of the translations, the narrative takes apart the doll and then puts it all back together again, with the King declaring that, being so impressed with Sheherezade’s art, he will spare her life and make her his wife and sultana. Moreover, over the course of the thousand and one nights, Sheherezade has borne him three children. In the Burton translation, the King tells her, “’By Allah, O Shehrzad, I pardoned thee before the coming of these children, for that I found thee chaste, pure, noble and pious!” (Burton 240)

While in the Galland, Burton, Lane, and Mardrus translations the frame narrative closes in the final scenes, the Haddawy edition is open-ended. There is no description of Shariyar praising her fidelity, as in the other versions. The Haddawy rendition ends rather abruptly, summing up the fate of Scherehezade in a single, and speculative, sentence in a translator’s postscript: “Tradition has it that in the course of time Shahrazad bore Shahrayar three children and that, having learned to trust and love her, he spared her life and kept her as his queen” (Haddawy 428).

Sheherezade convinces Sharyar that not all women are untrustworthy, as was his cheating wife was—but it is through her stories, which feature a wide variety of women: chaste ones, nymphomaniacs, schemers, devoted mothers, faithful wives, gold-diggers. The power of Shehrezade’s narrative art is a constant, from the Galland version to the Haddawy. Every time her tale is told, it acquires another facet, like a diamond, becoming more brilliant. A.S. Byatt has said that “the Tales stand against death,” and even though every translation has its flaws, its peculiarities, the story has, quite remarkably, endured. Though it is true that the translation can never approximate the original, thus validating Robert Frost’s claim that “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” what Joseph Brodsky affirmed years later—that poetry is what is gained in translation— is also true.

In Borges’ short story “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” the narrator identifies the Nights as a text that has the possibility of continuing indefinitely. “I remembered too that night which is at the middle of the Thousand and One Nights when Scheherazade (through a magical oversight of the copyist) begins to relate word for word the story of the Thousand and One Nights, establishing the risk of coming once again to the night when she must repeat it, and thus on to infinity.” There is no center, then, to the Nights; what seems to be the center is actually the outside, a new point of departure.


Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
anonymous. The Arabian Nights, trans. Husain Haddawy from the Muhsin Mahdi Arabic edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
. The Arabian Nights Entertainment, trans. Jonathan Scott,, October 18, 2004.
. The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, trans. Edward William Lane, New York: The Jefferson Press, 1935.
. The Arabian Nights Entertainments, trans. and ed. by Andrew Lang,, October 18, 2004.
. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, trans. E. Powys Mathers from the Dr. J. C. Mardrus French edition, New York: Routledge, Ltd., 1986.
. Les Mille et une nuits, trans. Antoine Galland. Paris: GF Flammarion, 2004.
Anoun, Abdelhaq. “Shéhérezade/ Galland ou la narration des nourritures terrestres,”, October 18, 2004.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Thousand and One Nights” in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 34-48.
Demers, Vincent. “Les Mille et Une Nuits,”, October 18, 2004.
France, Peter. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Grotzfeld, Heinz. “The Age of the Galland Manuscript of the Nights: Numismatic Evidence for Dating a Manuscript?” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Volume 1 1996-97, pp. 51-64.

Hersent, Jean-François, “Traduire ou la rencontre entre les cultures,”
BBF 2003 – Paris, t. 48, n° 5, pp. 56-60.

Irwin, Robert, The Arabian Nights: A Companion. New York: Penguin Press, 1994.
Proust, Marcel, In Search of Lost Time: Volume IV, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Sarhrouny, Yasmina, Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales, introduction, from, October 18, 2004.
Steiner, George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

[1] Translation my own, from: “Sans entrer dans les détails techniques, on peut facilement concevoir que tout verbe traducteur apporte par sa valeur sémantique de langue étrangère un effet de sens qui va se greffer sur l’énoncé original. Appelons-le le ton de l’étranger, le ton d’un juge extérieur au jeu qui contemple le spectacle de nos mœurs. En tout cas, dans le contexte des Mille et une nuits, l’attitude du traducteur français y est pour une part dans la reconstruction imaginaire du festin oriental, accusant une projection culturelle dans un réel non vécu, ou du moins, non partagé. Cette subjectivité forcée de traducteur met ouvertement en place une valeur de point de vue” Anoun, p. 1.

[2] Translation my own, from: “Le sultan se coucha avec Scheherazade sur une estrade fort élevée, à la manière des monarques de l’Orient” (Les Mille et Une Nuits, p. 44).

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