BOOK REVIEW / Illuminating the Nights: 'The Arabian Nights: A Companion' - Robert Irwin: Allen Lane / Penguin, 20 pounds

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THE old saying has it that a translation is like a woman, incapable of being both belle (beautiful) and fidele (faithful). Robert Irwin's erudite and generous book, which like The Thousand and One Nights itself seems to have everything in it, begins with the dilemma of Sheherezade, the prototype female storyteller, and with her complicated, even tortuous, fate in translation by Western writers and adventurers caught up in dreams of the exotic.

She's had a hard time at their hands, whether she's been treated as an Eastern temptress in need of new clothes or as an innocent maiden awaiting stylistic and poetic rescue. In his opening chapter Irwin demonstrates how translations (a ravishment, a carrying away, a theft) can mirror the unconscious fantasies of their white male authors just as much as they apparently reflect a seductive but dangerous Otherness.

Sexual imagery does indeed dominate the Arabian Nights, to an extent that may disconcert some readers. The frame sets up the beautiful, unfaithful woman explicitly: 'Shahriyar, a mythical king in ancient times, on discovering his wife's infidelity with a kitchen servant, had the wife put to death and, from that time on, fearing further sexual betrayal, he took virgins to his bed for one night only, invariably having them beheaded on the following morning. After this deflowering and slaughtering had gone on for some time, the vizier's daughter, Sheherezade, volunteered herself.' Mistress of cliff-hanging narrative and delayed climaxes, she told the king an unfinished story: 'The following night, the story continued, but it did not conclude.

Instead Sheherezade began another story, inset within the first one, and broke off this story also unfinished as dawn was breaking. And so things continued for several years . . . with Sheherezade, night by night, talking for her life' - and mimicking all the repeated rhythmical pleasures of an orgasm, a jouissance which the Nights generously offers to all its readers.

Modern Western readers of the Nights, Irwin observes, tend to fall into two types: those who have encountered a few of the stories, probably in childhood, such as those dealing with Ali Baba or Sinbad or Aladdin, and those who as adults have read them all and been delightedly inspired by them - Borges or Calvino or Angela Carter or A S Byatt, to name a few. People in the first group will have no idea of the collection's wide compass, 'fairy tales . . . long heroic epics, wisdom literature, fables, cosmological fantasy, pornography, scatalogical jokes, mystical devotional tales, chronicles of low life, rhetorical debates and masses of poetry'. The Arabian Nights, Irwin points out, is longer than Proust - and probably more fun.

But where is the real text? Chimera-like, chameleon-like, it lurks in the thickets of scholarly debates and puzzles about when it was first told, when written down and how many authors had a hand in composing it. These details are the stuff of academic theses but Irwin makes them fascinating. Many English readers will have first encountered the Nights in Richard Burton's 19th-century version of Payne's earlier translation: grotesquely archaic, turgid, and offensively footnoted with sexist and racist would-be scientific comments. Husain Haddawy, the contemporary author of the distinguished translation commended by Irwin, politely calls Burton's version 'a literary Brighton Pavilion'.

Translations proliferated in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Orientalism was fashionable in Western Europe, providing fantasies of 'opium reveries, jewelled dissipation, lost paradises, melancholy opulence and odalisques pining in jewelled cages', but contemporary readers have had to wait for Mr Haddawy's version, even though this, unfortunately, covers only the 271 nights of the Mahdi text of the Galland version.

Robert Irwin is eloquent on the lexical, grammatical, punctuational and syntactical problems of translating from Arabic. Firm in his opinions, caustic in his insights, he is equally engaging when discussing whether the Nights can or should be used as a source of knowledge about ancient customs and practices in the world which it appears to describe, about the extent it replicates real storytelling traditions, about the role of fantasy fiction in Muslim societies, the work's relation to Islamic thought on sex and sin, and much more. We're in the company of someone who loves the Arabian Nights, and who has generously shared that love with us through this companion.

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