New Arabian Nights translation

January 21, 2009

A review by Geert Jan van Gelder in the latest Times Literary Supplement informs us that for the first time in more than a century, a complete new translation of Shahrazad’s 1001 self-preserving tales is being published in English in a three-volume scholarly edition from Penguin Classics. Malcolm Lyons, the translator, apparently chose to include both traditional names for the work in his own somewhat unwieldy title, calling it The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. Van Gelder even discusses the details of the translation itself in some detail, lamentably a rarity in most reviews, as well as referring to ways in which it differs from previous translations.

Classical Arabic writers are generally not prudish, which posed a problem to Victorian and other translators. Lane’s solution was to omit bawdy tales altogether, while Burton revived old words or coined new ones for his purposes. Lyons occasionally resorts to another kind of prudishness, for instance when, shrinking from the correct, demotic English translation of hir, he uses the Latinate “vagina” in the tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies. This tale contains a passage on the naming of parts; the ladies are said to refer to the porter’s zubb or air: Lyons resorts to transliteration instead of translation. Some readers will be delighted to learn some naughty Arabic, but surely English has a profusion of equally vulgar words for the sexual organs.

Thinking about Borges’s entertaining and provocative essay “The Translators of the 1001 Nights” makes the publication of this new version all the more intriguing. What will the new translation say about our own contemporary culture? And how to take, then, confident statements from van Gelder such as that Lyons’s translation “does not suffer from the archaisms and highfalutin expressions that abound in many earlier translations, and to excess in Burton”? Is this an aesthetic claim or a scholarly one, and to what extent is there a difference?



One Response to “New Arabian Nights translation”

  1. […] translation of the 1001 Nights, this one even more disappointed in the sex scenes than the last one we linked to. Elspeth Barker, ruined for honest work by Borges’s nefarious celebrations of infidelitous […]

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