A new English version of “The Arabian Nights” is the first by a woman

The Annotated Arabian Nights. Translated by Yasmine Seale. Edited by Paulo Lemos Horta. Liveright; 816 pages; $45 and £30

IT IS ONE of the world’s oldest fables, and among the most-travelled. From 8th-century India and Persia, “1,001 Nights” (commonly known as “The Arabian Nights” in English) journeyed through Iraq, Egypt and Syria before arriving in western Europe in the early 18th century. The first translation into English directly from the Arabic—by Henry Torrens, a British army officer—appeared in 1838. Passing from East to West and back again, it may be the ultimate work of world literature.

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Yet this to-and-fro has had drawbacks. Western adaptations have sometimes misrepresented the original tales, often to satisfy Orientalist fantasies of the Middle East. Meanwhile, though female peril and ingenuity are at the heart of the story, until now no woman has published a full English translation of the story cycle. All of which makes this new edition—translated by Yasmine Seale, a female British-Syrian poet—quietly momentous.

The book prompts a simple yet powerful question: could you, like Scheherazade, tell a story to save your life? After King Shahryar discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him, he kills her and, in a fit of loathing against all womankind, begins marrying and murdering another victim every day. When Scheherazade’s turn comes, she asks to tell a story before she dies. He agrees, and is captivated. Scheherazade breaks off before dawn, promising to continue the following night. And so she goes on, for 1,001 nights, until the king falls in love with her, and she is spared.

For all the misogyny of the initial scenario, Scheherazade emerges as one of the most resourceful heroines in literature. But a lot can be lost in translation. Paulo Lemos Horta, a literary historian, says that, for previous generations of English readers, the tales came slathered in racism and sexism. The version by Edward Lane of 1839-41 salivated over the details of ornate palaces and titillating costumes. In a translation of 1885, says Mr Horta, Richard Francis Burton “adds negative traits to the women in the stories”, removing “their positive or redeeming qualities”. Burton also added racist jokes—perhaps not altogether surprising for a 19th-century British explorer who measured African men’s penises on his expeditions.

These Victorian renderings relied in turn on a French version of the early 18th century by Antoine Galland. That included several well-known tales—such as “Aladdin’s Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”—that were not in the original Arabic. For centuries, scholars thought Galland was their main author. Recent research has proved that Hanna Diyab, a Syrian storyteller, told them to him in Paris. Galland is thought to have adapted these “orphan stories” to please Western readers, by, for instance, carving clearer lines between good and evil.

For even the most venerable works of fiction, though, new readings can bring to light fresh meanings—and enduring truths. In 2017 Emily Wilson managed that in a new translation of Homer’s “Odyssey”, the first by a woman to be published in English. The new “Arabian Nights”—a selection from a complete edition in the making—does the same. Diyab’s role is duly recognised. Sex, violence and unequal gender relations still feature, but whereas earlier versions objectified female characters and elevated male ones, such as Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his vizier Jaafar, now homicidal sultans and pitiless jinns alike are disarmed by female storytelling.

Take a passage about a headstrong woman who in Burton’s rendering declares: “Destiny may not be averted…whatso woman willeth the same she fulfilleth.” In Ms Seale’s new text, what seemed like female wilfulness becomes noble independence: “He thought he had me and could keep me for himself, forgetting that what fortune has in store cannot be turned, nor what a woman wants.”

Or consider “The Story of the Porter and the Three Women of Baghdad”, Ms Seale’s favourite tale, in which the porter of the title is, as she puts it, “astonished to learn that it’s possible to have a good life without men”. Burton cut a section in which the women make jokes about the porter’s genitals; Ms Seale includes it. And whereas Burton’s porter insists that “women’s pleasure without man is short of measure”, her version is more even-handed: “as the pleasure of men falls short without women, so it is for women without men.”

Still, evolution has always been part of the story of “The Arabian Nights”. In the Arab world, the simple language, anonymity of the text and tradition of oral storytelling have made it seem less a part of the literary canon than of the ambient culture. “It’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment where you first hear about these stories, because you almost absorb them by osmosis,” says Omar El Akkad, a novelist. “The iconography of it is everywhere.” Brought up in a family of distinguished writers—her great-uncle was the cherished Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani—Ms Seale at first hesitated to take on such a well-worn project.

As it is, her proficiency in Arabic, English and French, along with her poet’s ear, have yielded a lyrical and accessible new text. Mr Horta contributes annotations that give context to her choices, and has selected hundreds of illustrations that let readers travel visually through the tales and their history.Even so, this is not the last word. “The longer I spend with this text, the less I really know what it is,” Ms Seale reflects. “It’s so changing and shimmering and unstable.”

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