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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.

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