I learn from Geert Jan van Gelder’s TLS review that there is a new, three-volume “complete” edition of the Arabian Nights (subtitled “Tales of 1001 nights,” thus covering all bases) published by Penguin and translated by Malcolm C. Lyons. The review has a useful summary of the history of the collection in Arabic (“It was anonymous, its language was not sufficiently polished, and it was too obviously fictional and fantastic in parts, all of which precluded its acceptance in highbrow circles. At the same time it was never as truly popular, in the sense of widespread among and beloved by the illiterate, as the monstrously lengthy and equally anonymous epic tales such as Sirat Antar or Sirat Bani Hilal.”) and in its European avatar, sparked off by Antoine Galland’s French translation:
Galland did more than merely translate: he shaped the text into what became a more or less canonical form; as a result the Nights are as much a part of Western literature as of Arabic. To Western readers, the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad belong to the core of the Nights and are among the best-known tales; but they did not belong to the Arabic text until Galland added them. There is, in fact, no known Arabic text of the Aladdin and Ali Baba stories that predates Galland, and elements in the story of Aladdin suggest that it may have been a European fairy tale rather than an Arabic one.
The reviewer thinks very highly of the translation, but he notes a couple of things at the end of the review that bother me more than they apparently do him. First off, Lyons does not render Arabic obscenities with English ones, either substituting formal words (“vagina”) or simply transliterating the Arabic (he refers to the porter’s “zubb”); as van Gelder says, “Some readers will be delighted to learn some naughty Arabic, but surely English has a profusion of equally vulgar words for the sexual organs.” Not a big deal, especially since there are apparently few obscene words in the original, but irritating. But the fact that there are no indications of vowel length really annoys me:
Already I imagine, with horror, how the name of the beautiful Badi’ al-Jamal will be pronounced by future readers as if she had something to do with a camel (jamal, different from jamâl, “beauty”), or how the name of the slave girl Hubub would sound like “hubbub”: it should be stressed on the second syllable and rhyme with “boob”, and I believe the correct reading would actually be Habub. The general reading public is supposedly averse to diacritical signs, but I have personally never met a “general reader” who abhorred macrons or circumflexes, and “Habûb” cannot look too off-putting.
And there is a minimum of annotation; again, I agree with the reviewer: “When, for instance, someone walks in one of the streets of al-Hira, the reader may want to know where that place is, but neither the maps nor the glossary will help. A reference to the ‘Abjad-Hawwaz alphabet’ may suggest a secret or cryptic script; a note could have explained that it is the ordinary Arabic alphabet in the old ‘Semitic’ order, as still used in Hebrew.” If you’re going to produce a massive, presumably definitive version of such an important work (and charge £125 for it), it seems to me foolish and counterproductive to skimp in such ways.
(Incidentally, I didn’t realize the TLS was online until jamessal mentioned it; I’d looked years ago, not found a web presence, and given up on it. Thanks, Jim!)