The Translators of ‘Thousand and One Nights’ Were Unquestionably Thieves

Horta makes a persuasive case that each act of plagiarism, theft, recreation, and simple fabrication, are nearly as interesting stories as the ones translators were toiling to bring to Western readers.

In a way, Richard Burton — the subject of the last chapter of Horta’s Marvellous Thieves — encapsulates all that preceded him throughout the book. By the end, Burton came to embody — partly as a result of the Thousand and One Nights’ translational history and partly because of how Paulo Lemos Horta has structured his book — the natural conclusion of each of the included translators’ accumulated endeavors.

Beginning with Antoine Galland in the early 18th century, the men who translated the Thousand and One Nights each, in their own way, sought to merge themselves in some way with the content of the narrative. From the connections Horta draws between Galland’s orphan tales and Hanna Diyab and Paul Lucas’s travels, to Edward Williams Lane’s thorough incorporation of his Modern Egyptians ethnography with his Thousand and One Nights translation. It was Burton, though, by casting himself quite literally as a fictional Arab (then Persian) personality Mirza Abdullah, who brought about the natural evolution of the earlier men’s acts of translation and self-creation.

Near the beginning of Marvellous Thieves, Horta observes that: “Common elements within the travelogues of Lucas and the memoir of Diyab suggest that the two men were exchanging stories … and both authors reveal an attraction to fabulous tales that mirror features of the orphan tales” (i.e., the tales Antoine Galland included in his translation, told to him by Diyab in Lucas’s Paris apartment). This merging of the lives of the translators (or in this case, the deliverer of some of the orphan tales) and the exoticized world of the Thousand and One Nights is a recurring theme in Horta’s recounting of the men’s lives.

Although Horta’s presentation of Diyab’s personal adventures as possible source for the content of the “orphan tales” sometimes borders on Oxfordian tenuousness, there’s no mistake that Diyab’s life must have flavored the stories he recounted to Galland in Lucas’s apartment. Once again, as the book progresses, it is the translators themselves who seek to live out the exotic adventures Galland only heard of from Diyab. By the book’s end, Burton has even adopted Abdullah’s personality to permit him to act out the experience most unique to the Islamic world: the hajj. Here it’s clear that Marvellous Thieves has progressed far beyond Edward Williams Lane’s now-passé tale of witnessing ink-stained divination.

Connected to their longing to partake in the imagined world of the Thousand and One Nights, another shared characteristic of many of the translators Horta discusses is the effort each man undertook to try and present himself as the singularly qualified figure to translate these stories, often by trying to subtly (or not-so-subtly) dismiss their predecessors’ efforts, no matter how each was indebted to the others. Each took different routes to try to demonstrate that he understood “the Arab” (or “the Indian” or “the Persian”, wherever each imagined the stories originated) best and therefore was best situated to translate the Thousand and One Nights for readers back home. This element figures particularly in the chapters on Lane and Henry Torrens — each man aware of their limits of their own ability and version. Yet Horta casts each man sympathetically despite fertile ground to dismiss many as arrogantly Orientalist (a term Horta retrieves from being only an academic pejorative). Instead, he finds within their rivalries and misunderstandings, a history of several men each with a natural combination of selfish and thoughtful motives.

Of Burton himself, perhaps one of the least sympathetic translators of Thousand and One Nights, Horta writes: “Burton’s ‘Terminal Essay’ to the Arabian Nights reflects his own understanding of the potential that lay within the story collection to provide a disruptive education in alternative beliefs and social practices.” In fact, the role that Thousand and One Nights and its various translations played in educational (or overall colonial) policy is another theme Horta manages to pack succinctly into each account. In the chapter on Torrens (one of the India-situated translators), Horta emphasizes the often-ignored translator’s contributions: “Torrens’s translation … remained unfinished, but it is the invisible thread that weaves through the history of the Arabian Nights in English.” It was Torrens, in fact, who saw the value of preserving the cultural reservoir of colonial cultures not only for the cultural value but as wise policy, and Torrens emerges from Horta’s account as the most empathetic character.

The translators Horta recounts were unquestionably thieves — of each other, of their sources and interlocutors, of their own personal encounters in Arab, Persian, and Indian cities they visited. But Horta makes a persuasive case that each man’s acts of plagiarism, theft, recreation, and simple fabrication are nearly as interesting stories as the ones they were toiling to bring to Western readers. Each man, whether Antoine Galland and Hanna Diyab or Richard Burton, was seeking to make his mark upon the world and preserve literature. There are numerous books recounting the problematic legacy of colonial translators, ethnographers, or simple civil servants like Torrens, but that book is not Marvellous Thieves and Horta has given readers a highly enjoyable account of the story behind the Thousand and One Nights.

RATING 7 / 10
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