Penguin £125

The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 nights, trs Malcolm C Lyons

A fairy-tale classic gets a modern makeover, but don't bin its fusty predecessors just yet

In his witty essay on the translators of the 1001 Nights, Borges celebrates a hostile dynasty, each scion striving to annihilate his predecessor. There are so many manuscripts to choose from, none definitive, representing a fantastical melange of tales preserved, embroidered, lost and reinvented by countless oral storytellers, Arabic, Persian, Indian – and French.

Antoine Galland, the first European translator, in the 18th century, is thought to have created two of the most famous stories, Aladdin and Ali Baba, himself. JC Mardrus's French version of 1899 (meticulously translated into English by Powys Mathers) has been hugely criticised for its delightful additional details – a dish of rice cream comes from him "powdered with sugar and cinnamon", while the Arabic "girl" may become "an enchanting child". Why not? This is the tradition of the storyteller. A contemporary translator, Husain Haddawy, recalls stories from his childhood in Baghdad: "As the embers glowed in the dim light ... she would spin the yarn leisurely, amplifying here and interpolating there, episodes I recognised from other stories." So it goes on. Everything is an aide-memoire for something else.

This new version of the Nights by Malcolm C Lyons is the first direct translation into English of the Calcutta II recension since Sir Richard Burton's famous 19th-century version. The three volumes bear introductions by Robert Irwin, who rises to Borges' prescription and casts scorn on earlier translations, though Lyons himself notes debts to Haddawy and to Enno Littmann, the German scholar derided by Borges for his literalism: "Like Washington, he cannot tell a lie."

If one were to find fault with Lyons' monumental achievement, it would be in the painstaking plainness of his diction. Like Haddawy, Lyons falls often into linguistic traps that are avoided by the exuberant Mardrus and Mathers. Instead of "cripple" or "lame" (traditional fairy-tale adjectives), Haddawy writes "paraplegic" while Lyons has "semi-paralysed". Lyons also consistently translates the common Arabic zib and kis as "penis" and "vagina". The cumulative effect is clinical, jarringly out of place in the perfumed chambers and ghostly gardens of the Nights.

In the tale of the second barber, a young man must gratify a drunken admirer. Mardrus/Mathers gets the right tone: "The old woman came up to him and said, 'Now you must run after the dear young lady and catch her. It is her custom, when heated by dance and wine, to undress naked and not to give herself to her lover until she has been able to examine his bare limbs, his rampant zabb, and the agility of his running. You must follow her from room to room, with your zabb in the ascendant, until you catch her. That is the only way she will be mounted."

Lyons has: "'Now,' said the old woman, 'you have achieved your goal. There will be no more blows and there is only one thing left. It is a habit of my mistress that, when she is drunk, she will not let anyone have her until she has stripped off her clothes, including her harem trousers, and is entirely naked. Then she will tell you to remove your own clothes and to start running, while she runs in front of you as though she was trying to escape from you. You must follow her from place to place, until you have an erection, and she will then let you take her.'"

I don't want to seem sex-obsessed, but in a medieval fairy tale, albeit for grown-ups, men do not have erections, they have rampant (or even rampaging) zabbs. And to continue the theme, inevitable in this saga, in the story of a Prince "Semi-Petrified" for Lyons, "Ensorcelled" for Burton, a lover lamenting the unpunctuality of his mistress, says, according to Lyons, "I will never again keep company with you or join my body to yours," but according to Burton, shouts "nor will I glue my body to your body, and strum and belly-bump". Which threat carries the more weight? Lyons mentions a ruined city "echoing to the screech of owls and the cawing of crows"; fine enough, but for Burton it is a place where "raven should croak and howlet hoot". Divine. Unfortunately Burton also says things such as "verily this is a matter whereanent silence cannot be kept". Verily, 'twas time for a new translation.

Yet the English reader may not be so badly served by the now-unfashionable Mardrus-Mathers version. Mathers is championed by the poet Tony Harrison, and Mardrus's admirers have included Gide, Proust, Borges and Joyce. As even their sternest critics admit, Mardrus and Mathers come closest to conveying the experience of a medieval Cairo storyteller, albeit at the cost of strict fidelity. Mardrus also dispenses with minor tales he finds dull, replacing them with others he likes better. A case in point is "The Tale of the Sea Rose of the Girl of China", remarkable for its transsexual subplot.

Scholars universally accept the claim made by Mardrus's enemy, Victor Chauvin, that Mardrus appropriated this tale from a Victorian source. But a little literary detective work on our part reveals that the source of this story is the Sanskrit Mahabharata, which dates from more than a millennium before the earliest manuscript of the Arabian Nights. Who wins on pedigree?

Scholars object to Mardrus's adornment in passages such as the iconic first description of Scheherazade, where he adds an extra line of praise. Lyons here deletes a line which is considered by Haddawy, Burton and Payne, to be correct.

Two final quibbles with Lyons: the "index" is an unalphabetised table of contents, provokingly placed at the back of the book, and page headers give the number rather than the name of the tale.

Despite these caveats, every aficionado will want to add Lyons to a rickety shelf which ideally will also contain Mardrus/Mathers, Haddawy, and the peerless Arabian Nights Encyclopedia by Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen, which is almost as much fun to dip into as the Nights themselves. Doughty Burton will serve to prop the whole thing up.

Click here to purchase this book

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser