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December 03, 2017


"The story of Aladdin and his wondrous palace [contains] a persistent riddle. Where is his palace located? Traditionally, the tale is set in China, but this is a distinctly Islamic China, for it must accommodate the cosmology of the jinn — the magical beings who drive this rags-to-riches story. A setting in Central Asia might solve this problem — but does ‘Aladdin’ really take place in the Orient at all? Where does this story come from? And how did it become part of this fascinating book of tales?”

Paulo Lemos Horta’s brilliant book Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights attempts to answer this question, though the better question implicit in Horta’s study is ‘how’ do we know of these oriental romances as they exist today in most European translations?

Arabian Nights, originally known as Alif Laila wa Laila, first came to European literary attention around the early 18th century through Antoine Galland’s French translation, Les Mille et Une Nuits [Thousand and One Nights]. As the 15th century Arabic manuscript that Galland used was incomplete, it is often said that Galland not only translated the text, but also authored several stories to attain a sense of completion in his translation. Horta, however, brings our attention to a more curious matter here: Was Galland the only translator and author of these ‘orphan stories’ of the Arabian Nights? Horta offers compelling evidence that the answer is ‘no’, going so far as to say that the most famous tales, such as ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’ and ‘Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp’, were not in the original Arabic manuscript that Galland used. In fact, the recent discovery from the Vatican Library of a memoir of a Syrian traveller, Hanna Diyab, reveals that these tales were told to Galland by Diyab when he visited Paris in the spring of 1709. Horta expands on this assertion with close analysis of Diyab’s memoirs and proves with significant historical evidence that the lavish descriptions of Aladdin’s palace — which to Horta seemed more Parisian than Persian — are actually the result of a cross-cultural encounter between Diyab and Galland. In other words, the baroque characteristics of Aladdin’s palace and the royal, rich lifestyle are explained by Diyab’s talented storytelling when one reads in his memoirs the episode of him being taken by the Oriental antiquarian, Paul Lucas, to the court of Louis XIV at Versailles.

Alif Laila wa Laila was a collaborative effort, enlivened as much by its European and Indian translators as its original Arabic narrators

Horta takes other famous translators to task as well and delves deeper into another framestory of the so-called tellers of the Arabian Nights, examining how much of the narrative talent of others was utilised in the creation of these translations. In addition to detailed chapters on Galland and Diyab, Horta examines the two best-known translators of this Perso-Arabic romance, Edward William Lane and Richard Francis Burton, who translated the stories into English. By focusing on the autobiographical details left by these translators and contextualising the debate in the colonial literary tradition and projects of knowledge production in which forgery, rewriting and plagiarism flourished, Horta follows the romance through its journey in the hands of various translators and colonial policymakers in India, Egypt, Syria etc. In this way he creates an alternative history in which travellers, munshis, local translators, cultural insiders, local linguists and bookkeepers contributed significantly to the ‘creation’ of this marvellous romance.

Fraught with unacknowledged credentials in their creation and the collaborative work that they consumed, the Arabian Nights in French and English have also posed questions for translation scholars regarding their narrative authenticity in the European languages. Horta writes: “Galland’s translations of the ... authorless work only increased the translator’s freedom to transform it in accordance with the aesthetic sensibilities of his time. Galland followed the plot of the original stories relatively closely, but simplified the text by cutting and abbreviating the interpolated poetry ... [giving] greater coherence to the stories by smoothing the transitions within each tale and clarifying the motives behind the actions of the characters. In general, Galland tried to reveal an order beneath the seemingly random play of events. The stories were also enlivened by the insertion of dialogues in accordance with prevailing French conventions ... as a source of edification and to guide the moral judgment of the reader. Heroic protagonists have been subtly reshaped to match Galland’s own values and subsidiary characters are conveniently introduced as a ‘good old man’ or a ‘detestable old woman’ in an effort to guide the reader through unfamiliar story patterns. Following his stated principles of decorum and delicacy, Galland elides the more explicit sexual material in the tales, transposing and rewriting scenes to convey romantic force rather than erotic detail. He is also willing to alter the original text in translation to ensure that the hierarchies of his own society were reflected in his Arabian Nights. For instance, the original ‘Tale of the Fisherman’ ends with a virtuous fisherman receiving riches and marrying his two daughters to a king and a prince, but Galland upholds strict barriers between the social orders by eliminating these marriage alliances in his translation.”

Clearly, the narrative space of these stories had become a site of meaning-making and intelligibility to the target language culture of the 18th century. Galland, participating in the politics of translation, ‘rewrites’ a certain event and ‘simplifies’ it from its complex Perso-Arabic literary heritage by making it more socially thinkable for the French society of the time. Horta further explores how the stories, as they travelled in the hands of several Orientalist translators, were ripped of their universality — a core element of any romance tradition — and became nation-specific stories.

A fascinating chapter in this regard is ‘The Empire of English’ where, to borrow Andrè Lefevere’s phrase, such a “manipulation of the literary fame” of Alif Laila wa Laila is examined through an English translation of an Indian manuscript done by Henry Torrens, a civil servant in 19th century India. He presented the Arabian Nights as an epic battle between Christians and Muslims. Although, as Horta tells us, Lane’s translation in Egypt (1838-40) is regarded as the first English translation, Torrens actually began working on his version a year before Lane, while Lane “waited for his Egyptian collaborator to annotate the Arabic text for him so that he could proceed...”

As the 15th century Arabic manuscript that Galland used was incomplete, it is often said that Galland not only translated the text, but also authored several stories.

Torrens’s translation has hardly been discussed at length before, and Horta’s discussion makes it clear that the production of his version in the context of Indian colonial history is crucial to understanding the evolution of the Arabian Nights in English. Not only that, Horta’s analysis of Calcutta’s Fort William College, and its patronage of various projects of knowledge production in the 19th century, is crucial to understanding how many Indo-Persian romances such as Hamza Nama, Qissah-i-Gul-i-Bakawali and several others were penned down and sponsored for translation. One can argue that in addition to the Perso-Arabic romance tradition, which was already in the literary grasp of pre-colonial Indian intellectual culture, there is plenty of material within the production of Indo-Persian romances that constitutes an exciting array of literary and historical scholarship.

Marvellous Thieves is an exciting reading experience that helps us reconstruct a biography of one of the oldest romances in literary history. It is a study of the unacknowledged authors, tellers, collaborators and local annotators of the Arabic original, where Horta allows the ghosts of translators such as Burton, Lane and Galland to speak to us through their texts and what conspired during the process of their translations’ birth. However, while there’s hardly any indication of how the author synthesises this information, Horta’s book opens numerous possibilities for future scholarship in similar intellectual traditions of non-European languages, translation studies and literary historiography.

The reviewer is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Canada

Marvellous Thieves:
Secret Authors of the
Arabian Nights
By Paulo Lemos Horta
Harvard University
Press, US
ISBN: 978-0674545052

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 3rd, 2017