Another great online discovery: Richard Burton’s maniacally detailed translation of the Thousand Nights and a Night, complete with footnotes.

Moreover, holding that the translator’s glory is to add something to his native tongue, while avoiding the hideous hag-like nakedness of Torrens and the bald literalism of Lane, I have carefully Englished the picturesque turns and novel expressions of the original in all their outlandishness; for instance, when the dust cloud raised by a tramping host is described as “walling the horizon.” Hence peculiar attention has been paid to the tropes and figures which the Arabic language often packs into a single term; and I have never hesitated to coin a word when wanted, such as “she snorted and sparked,” fully to represent the original. These, like many in Rabelais, are mere barbarisms unless generally adopted; in which case they become civilised and common currency.

Lose yourselves, gentle readers…

“…But when it was midnight Shahrázád awoke and signalled to her sister Dunyázád who sat up and said, “Allah upon thee, O my sister, recite to us some new story, delightsome and delectable wherewith to while away the waking hours of our latter night.” “With joy and goodly gree,” answered Shahrázád, “if this pious and auspicious King permit me.” “Tell on,” quoth the King who chanced to be sleepless and restless and therefore was pleased with the prospect of hearing her story.”


  1. This book was one of the highlights of my teen years. I can’t think of any other translator who could singlehandedly create an entirely new form of English that captures (successfully!) the spirit of the source language so beautifully.
    And the footnotes are even more entertaining than the work itself at points.

  2. I walked past a Chinese medicine shop today. Among the many complaints they claim to treat is

  3. Oh, good!

  4. My teens too, Mark! Thanks lh, with these links you are spoiling us.

  5. Damnit, that comment was meant for the next post down.
    My parents had a very saucy Burton compendium (“Love, War and Fancy” was the title, I think). Naturally I discovered it at an impressionable age.

  6. Glad to have pleased you all! And anyone who enjoys Burton’s rococo style should definitely try Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, one of the classics of English prose though caviar to the general.

  7. Rice’s Biography of Burton is worth reading.

  8. aldiboronti says

    I too was a teenage Arabian Nights addict. The library had a large one-volume translation (Lang, I believe) and i had it on almost permanent loan for months. Wily djinns, wilier mortals, evil viziers, rapacious merchants, bold adventurers, beautiful damsels – this book had it all and then some. Even then I was conscious that some of the choicer morsels were being held back, much to my youthful indignation.
    I have dipped in to the Burton translation at times to see what I was missing all those years ago (plenty!), but it’s marvellous to have the whole thing online.
    BTW has anybody mastered the art of reading long texts online yet, with the same enjoyment as one would a book? Is it a generational thing? I admit to being a laggard in this respect.

  9. My parents had the Heritage Club edition, which I still have, and I still remember one of the smutty stories.
    I had a Persian classmate in college who was miffed at the “Arabian Nights” title.

  10. aldiboronti says

    “By Allah,” she replied, “that may not be thine, for there is written upon my trouser string a hard word!”
    Vol 2, Tale 8.
    Where else could one be but in the Arabian Nights? Glorious!

  11. The book is always called “Thousand and One Night” in Russian, and we used to have a beautiful Uzbek edition with miniatures, verses in different font and extensive commentary. I’m still wondering what the “pomegranate kernels in rose water” dish tastes like…

  12. Regarding ‘coining a word’ – here’s a different opinion, by one Occam’s Beard:
    …I know, I know, Shakespeare “verbed” a great deal, and enriched the language in so doing, but those who struggle to make subject and verb agree in number (“agreeivize,” if we need a single word) are enriching the language only in an agricultural sense…
    Taken respectfully from this discussion.

  13. …bringing me a little closer to my dream of having a pocket-sized book of this containing NOTHING BUT THE FOOTNOTES.

  14. is this the translation that’s up on Gutenberg?

  15. Count me into the teenage 1001 Nights addict category, but I didn’t read Burton’s translation. (My massive 4-volume set is Mardrus & Mathers.)
    I was under the impression that Burton’s was heavily bowdlerized, and that Mardrus & Mathers was the only totally unexpurgated one… but I’d be happy to be corrected were that not the case.

  16. There were bowdlerized editions of Burton, but I believe his original translation is complete (and has even more scabrous material in the notes).

  17. If I may restate a contrarian view drummed into me by my mentors: Burton was a really lousy translator, and that exoticized King James Bible diction he adopted for the nights is especially problematic. The language of the Nights does have moments of great rhetorical exuberance (and poetic bravura, though the quality of the poetry is very uneven), but in fact the question of levels of style appropriate to its many different rhetorical genres is extremely important, and no translator has really done justice to this aspect of the text.
    The Nights has a lot of scoundrels in its history in the West, of course: Antoine Gallande, who produced the first translation into French in the late 1700s, found himself with such a commercially hot property on his hands that he published stories transcribed from contemporary oral storytellers as genuine episodes from the medieval manuscript tradition. Alladin? Just some fairytale from some shady Algerian raconteur, dug up to feed the latest literary craze.
    Edward Lane, working a generation before Burton, was much more faithful to the original text, but could not bring himself to translate the “naughty” bits (which are not all that graphic by modern standards, and play a central thematic role in the work).

  18. The Dance of the Seven Veils? Is it in The Arabian Nights, anywhere???
    Thank you. jg@viclink.com

  19. No, the basic story of Salome is from the Bible and Josephus and the seven veils seem to come from Oscar Wilde. See the discussion here.

  20. scarabaeus stercus says

    “walling the horizon” caught my I . when I had the misfortune to travel the Iraqi desert many moo_ons ago, before the U S Military discovered it. I remember such a sight, that started as thick pencil line on the Horizon, quickly growing in height, seeming to not to close in till it hit and we lost many things and suddenly we were afloat [thank goodness it was over in a song.] It expresses the experience well.

  21. And anyone who enjoys Burton’s rococo style should definitely try Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta …
    Did you know that Burton wrote a review of Arabia Deserta for Academy in 1888? In the intervening years, there seems to have been much controversy between literary partisans of the two as to whether the review was fair and even as to whether it was favorable or not. Which seems odd to me. There is a paper by Tabachnick, a modern Doughty editor, in this collection on it. But the review itself has gotten hard to find in the meantime. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before it gets digitized and we can see for ourselves.
    … my dream of having a pocket-sized book of this containing NOTHING BUT THE FOOTNOTES.
    This is close. A classic mid-60’s cheap paperback with the Terminal Essay and salacious bits from the footnotes edited together into a sort of coherent whole.

  22. In A. N. Footnotes who is H. V.

  23. Don’t know, sorry. But:

    Did you know that Burton wrote a review of Arabia Deserta for Academy in 1888? … But the review itself has gotten hard to find in the meantime. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before it gets digitized and we can see for ourselves.

    That happy day has arrived. (Note that he opens with μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν… transliterated in Modern Greek pronunciation!)

  24. That Gutenberg link points to the wrong site: this search will show you all 17 volumes.

    When Burton is enumerating previous translations, he praises only Payne’s, but deeply regrets that it was a private publication of 500 copies, and as such effectively unavailable. But what I like is what he says about Payne’s style: “His version is most readable: his English, with a sub-flavour of the Mabinogionic archaicism, is admirable; and his style gives life and light to the nine volumes whose matter is frequently heavy enough.”

    “Mabinogionic archaicism”, is it? Hmmm. See it via the Hathi Trust; alas, volumes 1 and 3 are missing.

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