There was a time, once, when the life of the Arabian Nights was lived more fully and more consequentially in places very remote from even the loosest notions of what might be called Arabia. It was 18th-century Europe where the stories' first print publications saw the light, and Europe, too, where the tales were so highly prized - while back home they were frequently dismissed as trifles, vulgar and insubstantial.
Not that they ever had one "home" at all, of course. The component stories have roots in Iraq, Egypt, India, Syria, Iran and elsewhere, and were strapped together as a miscellaneous bundle that Europeans labelled "Arabian", which meant simply that they had some approximately Eastern exoticism in common, slightly weird colours and tastes, and people in a far-off land behaving in ways that we probably wouldn't here.
It was the French orientalist Antoine Galland who gave us the first translation, Les mille et une nuit, published from 1704. This first translation was also our first print edition in any language. While based on Arabic manuscripts, it is a partial, expurgated reading, smoothed and shaped by the interventions of its creator. Indeed, it has been the book's "translators", if such we should call them, who over time have defined and re-defined its scope, not to mention its impact.
Before Galland, the stories had existed for centuries in a constantly shape-shifting collection. It came to be known as Alf Laylawa-Layla (One Thousand and One Nights), and it was a manuscript of this text (from the Syrian recension) which Galland took as his primary source. But he added stories not found in any of his predecessors, too, among them "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", which have since become perhaps the Nights' most familiar components to Western readers.
1706 brought the first English-language edition, anonymously translated, entitled The Arabian Nights' Entertainment. To many Europeans, the name stuck. Arguably the stories' most significant English-language ambassadors came more than a century after, however, with Edward Lane's expurgated version, published from 1838, followed some 50 years later byRichard Burton's ten-volume Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which reinstated the sexual content that Lane had delicately sidestepped. Opinions are divided about Burton's prurient, rather lurid version, but it certainly did much to popularise the Nights with readers. More than a century further on, Shahrazad and her stories remain vividly with us.
What we now find ourselves with, then, is a particular kind of cultural appropriation. The Nights have been wound into a Western canon, albeit to function as a representative of another culture. It's a sort of shorthand, for domestic consumption.
Speaking on a panel in the Gulf earlier this year, I heard discontent from local writers and translators that the Arabian Nights retain such a stranglehold on Western understanding of Middle Eastern storytelling that there's barely oxygen left for anything else more modern. It's a classic example of the orientalism scorned by Edward Said. Sir Richard Burton, I was told, has a lot to answer for.
The most recent English-language edition, however, comes from the pen of Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh. Her One Thousand and One Nights is described on the title-page as "a new re-imagining". Which indeed it is, but then so is every translation of this unique work. Naturally, any translation is a recreation, and in its simplest form to be a translator is to be a re-teller. But here there's something different at play.
Where the translator of, say, a contemporary European novel would usually see his or her role as transferring text A across a language divide and re-presenting it as new text B, constructed out of quite different materials but bearing as close an exterior likeness as possible, in this case - well, for starters, it's far from obvious what text A is exactly. There's no definitive "original" for a translator to work from, merely a long history of variants, often assembled by other translators. So each translator carries out work that isn't just textural, or even textual, but is significantly structural too.
Then, where a "regular" translator is aiming for a likeness in mode – translate a long novel into a long novel, a short poem into a short poem – translators of this work don't even have this to cling to. The assembly of stories is translated as often into different forms as its narrative prose into narrative prose, or its poetry into poetry.
Earlier this week, the de Havilland Philarmonic performed Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, while live on stage the artist James Mayhew translated those sounds into magical images, including a night-time townscape of domes, under a starry night sky with a crescent moon. His re-creational task was a translation of sorts, just as Rimsky-Korsakov's was before him.
In the Foreword to her book, Hanan Al-Shaykh writes that she fell in love with the Nights as a child thanks to a radio adaptation. Her own "re-imagining" had its origins in a commission for the stage, working with theatre director Tim Supple, who dramatised them for a pan-Arabic cast earlier this year. Now in book form she has stitched together 18 tales, all sitting within the famous frame-story. Young Shahrazad is taken to bed by the King who vows to kill her at daybreak, but by spinning out cliff-hanging stories, she manages to earn a day's reprieve, then another, a thousand times over, until she has changed his mind. (And borne him three sons along the way.)
Part of the stories' appeal to Al-Shaykh was their "flat, simple language" – and indeed many versions of the Nights find a voice to portray this vivid world that is knowingly stilted, calculatedly formulaic. For something to "read like a translation" is usually a cardinal sin, but translators of the Nights seem to revel in just that. So Al-Shaykh's cunning fisherman says to the jinni he has found in a bottle: "'This is what I love to hear! Just give me a second to think what I should ask of you.' But the jinni said, 'Tell me how you wish to die. I promise you that I will fulfil your desire.' 'Why me?' the fisherman shrieked. 'What have I done to you, you ungrateful creature? Let me tell you that until this day I never believed the proverb 'Beware those you help'."
Within this language, however, a spell is woven. We must be captivated, if we are to believe that our proxy-listener the King is too.
Al-Shaykh's One Thousand and One Nights is a treasure-box of stories, brimming with wily, deceitful women and power-hungry men, with fishermen, caliphs, viziers and jinnis, dervishes and demons, with lavish banquets and bustling marketplaces, camels and donkeys, excessive appetites, drinking, poetry and song, casual violence and generous amounts of candid, explicit sex. The stories link and loop and ensnare their readers. This paragraph, by the way, was just the kind of lazy shorthand described above, which the stories seem to encourage: a treasure-box! Camels and viziers, indeed!
"Translators are not usually thought of as novelists in their own right," writes Marina Warner; but "the history of the Arabian Nights in its European versions should warn against any such glib presumption". She describes Lane, like Galland, as "a fabricator". The same could be said of the skills Al-Shaykh has brought to her fine new telling.
Warner's Stranger Magic is an exuberantly clever investigation of the role of magic in the way we think, which harvests the Arabian Nights for stories and figures to demonstrate her case. It considers the fascination of the unexplained, and the uses of enchantment (a phrase inevitably reminiscent of psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim) in a secular, sceptical world. The stories in the Nights are, after all, wild and fantastic fairy-tales that hit their massive European popularity at the height of the Age of Reason. Warner opens a portal to all the aja'ib – the wonders – in the Nights and shows us why such things have had, and continue to have, such sustained impact.
Just as any act of translation is by its nature a creative, or re-creative act, so storytelling itself is always fundamentally an enchantment. The reader of the Nights – like Shahrazad's king – is enchanted by stories that are themselves about enchantments. It's largely this inner wheel – the magical "content", if you like, with magicians, transformations, flying carpets and all – that is Warner's subject.
With the text of the Nights as her anchor, Warner's widely referenced argument spins outwards and back again - to some close relations, such as Lotte Reiniger's "shadow film", The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but also further to The West-Eastern Divan (Goethe's collection of lyric poems), and even to the symbols on the Persian rug covering Freud's couch. "The Persian rug, the Arabian nights and the psychoanalytic process," she writes, "are all forms of storytelling."
Where Al-Shaykh gives us a translation that, like any translation, reveals and acknowledges its origins as it simultaneously dissembles, Warner cracks open the frame to expose the workings of the component parts. She dismantles and rearticulates them on an exhilarating scale, in a book dense with allusions and wide-ranging new associations. Which is, I suppose, a sort of re-creation too.
Daniel Hahn's most recent translation is of 'The Time in Between' by Maria Dueñas (Simon & Schuster)
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies