Seale’s Nights.

Robyn Creswell’s NYRB review of The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1001 Nights, translated by Yasmine Seale, makes it sound like the one to read. After a discussion of Galland (“tasteful”), Lane (“chaste ethnographies”), and Burton (“fantastical and often racist erotica”), Creswell continues:

The standard contemporary English translation, Husain Haddawy’s 1990 version, is—as if to confirm Borges’s rule of difference—a sober performance with wonderfully few footnotes. Whereas Burton’s translation includes virtually every tale he could find a manuscript for—as well as some that he made up, such as “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind”—Haddawy confined himself to translating the first critical edition of the Nights, published by the scholar Muhsin Mahdi in 1984–1994 and based on Galland’s Syrian text. […] I have taught Haddawy’s version in the classroom and never wished for another. It is readable and reliable, and contains most of the Nights’ best tales in a single volume. Burton supplies a colorful point of comparison, but it is hard not to read his translation now as Orientalist camp.

Yasmine Seale’s new translation of selected tales from the Nights is the first in English by a woman, but at first blush it isn’t a dramatic departure from her immediate precursors—no hostility here. Like Haddawy and [Malcolm] Lyons, she has crafted a contemporary rendition that is sensitive to the Arabic and uninterested in exotic retouches. Reading her version more closely, however, one sees how much can still be done with these endlessly told and retold stories. The difference Seale’s translation makes is subtle but cumulative, and finally profound.

He then provides the kind of head-to-head comparison I love:

No single comparison can fully capture these subtleties, but here are the opening passages of Haddawy and Seale. First Haddawy:

It is related—but God knows and sees best what lies hidden in the old accounts of bygone peoples and times—that long ago, during the time of the Sasanid dynasty, in the peninsulas of India and Indochina, there lived two kings who were brothers. The older brother was named Shahrayar, the younger Shahzaman. The older, Shahrayar, was a towering knight and a daring champion, invincible, energetic, and implacable. His power reached the remotest corners of the land and its people, so that the country was loyal to him, and his subjects obeyed him. Shahrayar himself lived and ruled in India and Indochina, while to his brother he gave the land of Samarkand to rule as king.

And here is Seale:

The story goes (but God knows more than us about the truths of times gone by) that long ago, in the Sasanian age, two brothers ruled over the islands of India and China, and their names were Shahriyar and Shahzaman.
The elder, Shahriyar, was strong on a horse and bold with a blade, never beaten and never burned, quick to revenge and slow to forgive. His dominion spread to the corners of the land until the far edges fell under his sway, and he chose India for his seat, and to his brother he gave Samarkand.

Seale’s rendition is notably swifter, perhaps in deference to the tales’ origins in actual speech. Her phrasing is more concise—“the truths of times gone by”—and she accomplishes in three sentences what takes Haddawy five. While he gets tied up in the kings’ names and birth order, Seale trims her language without sacrificing clarity: we don’t need to be told twice that Shahrayar is older, and if that’s the case, then Shahzaman must be the cadet.

Seale is also livelier and more colloquial: “The story goes” rather than the wan formality of “It is related.” Haddawy’s adjectives describing the king, “invincible, energetic, and implacable,” troop by in a Latinate blur. A more literal rendition of the Arabic phrase that Haddawy renders as “invincible” would be “one who burns so fiercely you would not dare to warm yourself by his fire.” Seale wisely eschews literalism, but keeps things vivid by arranging a nimble series of alliterations, parallelisms, and antitheses. “Quick to revenge and slow to forgive” is especially suggestive, since it points to the tales’ broader interest in whether rulers can learn to be merciful (a suggestion somewhat muffled by Haddawy’s “implacable”).

The Arabic of the opening lines is written in saj‘, or rhyming prose, a common feature of medieval texts. Rhyming is easy in Arabic but not in English, and most translators, like Haddawy, don’t attempt it. (Burton, of course, can’t help himself: “In tide of yore and in time long gone before…”) Seale doesn’t try to reproduce all the rhymes, but we hear in her version delicate echoes of the original: goes, knows, ago in the first paragraph; land and Samarkand in the second. She also has an ear for Arabic phrases that sound attractively strange in English when rendered word for word. After Shahrayar learns of his wife’s infidelity, he is “so angry he could bleed.” (Haddawy has the more idiomatic but less interesting “his blood boiled.”) All these elements give Seale’s translation a texture—tight, smooth, skillfully patterned—that make previous versions seem either garish or slightly dull by comparison. […]

Another feature of the Nights that has vexed translators is the poetry. There is no verse in the opening tale of the two kings, but Scheherazade “knew poetry by heart”—not just some poetry, but “the poems,” as the Arabic says—and once she takes center stage, almost every tale includes at least a few lines of verse. Characters in the Nights recite poetry to bewail their fate, to praise male or female beauty, or to show off their wit and learning. Certain poems reappear in different tales, suggesting shared themes or situations. Some were written by famous poets, but most are by hacks and copyists. Almost all are written in classical meters and monorhyme, in which all lines in the poem have the same rhyme.

The problem with the poems is that they rarely move the story forward, and most readers of the Nights are primarily interested in the twists of plot. Lane translates fewer than half the poems in his Arabic manuscript, and originally planned to omit nearly all of them. He renders the verse in ungainly prose and without rhyme. Burton includes all the poems as well as the rhymes, but even Borges made fun of his versions (e.g., “A sun on wand in knoll of sand she showed,/Clad in her cramoisy-hued chemisette”). Haddawy also includes the poems, rendering them into what he calls a “neoclassic” style: iambic pentameters and rhyming quatrains. He makes the daring decision—consistent with his rigorous commitment to the original—to have bad poetry in Arabic sound bad in English too.

Seale is choosy about which poems she translates, and ends up providing English versions of even fewer than Lane did. She is most drawn to those that appear, like arias in an opera, at moments of emotional intensity. But she tends to render these episodes of sentimental release or heightened perception in taut, elliptical lines. […] Here, for example, is Seale’s rendition of an Arabic couplet describing a beautiful young man:

Slip of a thing
Whose hair and blaze
Are to the world
Brightness and shade.
No flaw his cheek’s
Round mark—
Black heart.

Compare this with Haddawy’s version:

Here is a slender youth whose hair and face
All mortals envelop with light or gloom.
Mark on his cheek the mark of charm and grace,
A dark spot on a red anemone.

“Dichten = condensare,” writes Ezra Pound, citing a German–Italian dictionary, and Seale’s poetic is one of modernist economy: the art of knowing what to leave out. She keeps prepositions to a minimum and tends to avoid conventionally poetic words like “slender,” “mortals,” “envelop,” “gloom,” and “mark” (as a verb). Her clipped monosyllables allow “anemone” to bloom more fully. While Haddawy’s version reads like an example of schoolboyish eloquence—which is indeed what some of the original Arabic poems are—Seale’s half rhymes and two-beat lines record a flash of perception, a lovestruck glance. Their swift, objective tenor is the language of rapture.

It sounds like the notes in this annotated edition are not very well done: “They tell us things we already know, repeat themselves, offer dubious interpretations, or paraphrase what we have just read.” Creswell concludes:

But it is unfortunate that Seale’s elegant versions—the best, to my mind, in English—are embedded in an edition that seems designed to obscure their brilliance. Hers is the voice that will keep us awake at night.

I agree — based on the bits he quotes, this is by far the best version in literary terms; by comparison, Haddawy (which I’ve owned and read with pleasure for thirty years) is a stuffed shirt. (I posted about the Burton version in 2004 and the Lyons in 2009, and about Aladdin in 2019.)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    fantastical and often racist erotica

    Surely destined for the blurb on the paperback edition …

  2. Charles Perry says

    I have all those translations and several editions of the Arabic text. My interest is whether this version finally acknowledges the medieval cookbook translations (made by me and others) that show what the dishes mentioned in the Nights really were. Or is this going to be another that renders aruzz mufalfal as “peppered rice” and zirbaj as “cumin stew”?

  3. Good question — report back if you find out!

  4. Personally, I am surprised by both translations. For some reason neither informed us about “one who burns so fiercely you would not dare to warm yourself by his fire”. As if knowing that Shahzaman ruled in Samarkand was more important.

  5. Rather than “Orientalist camp” and “fantastical and often racist erotica”, I prefer to see Burton’s Nights as an attempt by a literary genius to rework the English language in the service of his translation. Reading Burton’s Nights as a teenager was indeed (ahem) eye-opening, but in a literary way as well.

  6. I found, “but God knows more than us about the truths of times gone by,” intensely cringe inducing for some reason. It seems like it’s just totally the wrong register. (I’m not sure, but maybe, “… knows more than we…” would sound better.)

  7. Back in 2004 Claudia Ott came out with a translation of The Thousand and One Nights into German that got excellent reviews. The praise was very similar to the praise that Seale is getting – truer to the original, strong prose, uncensored, no more orientalism, etc. I haven’t had a chance to compare for myself yet.

  8. I suspect we may finally be moving into a post-orientalist era — now that the wild flailing rhetoric has abated, people can actually start clearing the rubble and doing things afresh.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    You mean, a post-Orientalism era?

    One hopes so …

  10. Nice to hear about a new translation – my dad used to collect editions of the 1001 Nights in his youth, so I grew up with several. (And read Burton’s far too early, under the misconception that any version of the Arabian Nights must ipso facto be a good kid’s book. Not recommended.)

    Post-orientalism sounds good – but the “Arabian Nights” by now is as much as a part of the Western canon as it is of Arabic literature, parodied and alluded to and reused all over the place. If anything, its current importance in Arabic literature is in significant part a result of its canonisation in the West.

  11. Sure, but that’s what I mean: once we get beyond the fierce (and ultimately silly) debates about who stole what from whom and who’s not viewing whom with the proper deference, we can just enjoy the good stuff, whatever angle we’re coming to it from.

  12. cultural appropriation is part of my culture

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Vulture culture …

  14. jack morava says

    I’m with mollymooly, respectfully…

  15. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    In my own memory, that opening line remains most vivid as the opening line of Borges’s pretend translation from Burton:

    Cuentan los hombres dignos de fe (pero Alá sabe más) que en los primeros días hubo un rey de las islas de Babilonia que congregó a sus arquitectos y magos y les mandó construir un laberinto tan perplejo y sutil que los varones más prudentes no se aventuraban a entrar y los que entraban se perdían. Esa obra era un escándalo, porque la confusión y la maravilla son operaciones propias de Dios y no de los hombres. Con el andar del tiempo lo vino a visitar un rey de los árabes, y el rey de Babilonia (para hacer burla de su simplicidad) lo hizo penetrar en el laberinto, donde vagó afrentado y desesperado los días y las noches. Al final imploró el socorro divino y dio con la puerta. Sus labios no profirieron queja ninguna, pero le dijo al rey de Babilonia que él en Arabia tenía un laberinto mejor y que si Dios era servido, se lo daría a conocer algún día. Luego regresó a Arabia, juntó sus capitanes y sus alcaides y estragó los reinos de Babilonia con tan venturosa fortuna que derribó sus castillos, rompió sus gentes e hizo cautivo al mismo rey. Lo amarró encima de un camello veloz y lo llevó al desierto. Cabalgaron tres días y le dijo: En Babilonia me quisiste perder en un laberinto con muchas escaleras, puertas y muros; ahora el Poderoso ha tenido a bien que te muestre el mío, donde no hay escaleras que subir ni puertas que forzar ni fatigosas galerías que recorrer ni muros que te veden el paso.

    Luego le desató las ligaduras y lo abandonó en mitad del desierto, donde pereció de hambre y de sed. La gloria sea con Aquel que no muere.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m with mollymooly, respectfully…

    Yes, I wasn’t getting at mollymooly.
    I just couldn’t resist the assonance … it would have been a shame to miss out on it after such a kind setup line.

  17. Robert Everett-Green says

    Seale has also written about “a project of erasure” she performed on a cheap copy of Lane’s Nights, found in a cafe in Istanbul while she was making her own translation. The results of her erasures, a few pages of which accompany her essay on The Poetry Society website, recall Tom Phillips and A Humument:

  18. Robert Everett-Green says

    Many more of Seale’s erasures are here:

Speak Your Mind