This interview first appeared at the Library of Arabic Literature website:
Bruce Fudge, Professor of Arabic at the University of Geneva and author of Qur’anic Hermeneutics: al-Tabrisi and the Craft of Commentary (2011), wanted to take a break from Qur’an commentary and “read all the things that religious scholars told you not to read.”
So when an opportunity arose to translate a text for the Library of Arabic Literature, Fudge suggested a collection of stories not unlike the 1,001 Nights. For while much of scholarship about classical Arabic literature is focused on high literature, he said, 1,001 Nights is just the tip of the iceberg of semi-popular stories. Fudge says that, when he first went around Moroccan bookshops asking about A Hundred and One Nights, booksellers told him that surely he meant the 1001. But, he says, he found that they were better-known than he’d expected.
In the first part of an interview about this edition and translation of A Hundred and One Nights, Fudge talked about where the stories might’ve come from and how they traveled, who might have produced and read the Nights, and what the use of Middle Arabic tells us about their composers, scribes, and audience.
In this second part, they talk about which came first—the 101 or the 1,001—and issues in translation.
Let’s talk about the chicken and the egg. You spent time, in your introduction, talking about priority: which came first, the 101 or the 1001. What do we know, or guess, on this topic?
Sometimes you’ll hear that A Hundred and One Nights may be earlier than the 1001, or something to that effect. This statement is not necessarily correct, but there are correct elements to it.
The 101 and the 1001 share more or less the same frame story. The version of the frame story that we have in the 101 Nights is closer to the Asian version that probably is at the origins of this story. There are many caveats to add here, but around the turn of the last century, the scholar Emmanuel Cosquin noticed similarities between the Nights and a work translated from the Chinese to the French. He understood that Chinese collection to be a translation of a much earlier Sanskrit collection, now lost. The frame story of the 101 Nights is closer to that Chinese-Sanskrit version.
The 101 frame also makes for a better story. The 1001 Nights begins with two brothers, both kings, where one decides he’d like his brother to come visit. The 101 and the Asian version begin with the story of a king who’s very vain and holds a beauty contest every year, asking, Is there anyone in the world more beautiful than me?
The Sleeping Beauty frame story.
Right. That’s a much stronger motivation for bringing the two brothers together, as opposed to just having a whim. So it’s thought that because that version has a greater motivation, and it’s in the supposed source, that the frame of the 101 contains this older element.
There’s also the fact that, in a couple of the versions of the 101 Nights, it’s the sister, Dunyazad/Dinarzad, who sleeps with the king, and Shahrazad’s the storyteller.
This is significant, because in most of the Asian versions of the story—and there are a number of slightly transformed versions that you find all through South and Southeast Asia—the Shahrazad figure often has an accomplice, a nurse or a sister. But in the 1001 Nights as we know it, the role of the sister is reduced. She just asks for a story, and Shahrazad does everything else herself. The division of labor that you find in part of the 101 tradition might represent an earlier stage.
Sometimes in these stories, you’ll find a character that doesn’t seem to have much of a function. That might indicate a case where the story has altered. The character is still there, but they no longer fulfill the same function.
Like a human appendix.
Right, sometimes it remains, sometimes it gets removed.
So that’s the frame. What about the rest?
The oldest manuscript of the 1001 is probably from the 15th century. This is the manuscript that Antoine Galland used for the first European translation in the early 18th century. We have mentions of the 1,001 going back to the 10th century, in Baghdad, where people talk about this work translated from the Persian. We even have a tiny manuscript fragment from the 10th century; it’s in Chicago.
But whatever those guys were talking about in the 10th century almost certainly had very little to do with the collection as we know it now. What happened in those intervening years, we don’t know. The 1001 as we know it probably does date to the 15th century, or maybe a little bit earlier.
It’s certainly very different from whatever was in that 10th century manuscript.
So when you ask, “Is the 101 older than the 1001 Nights?,” it’s not even clear what that means.
But you do suggest that, in some respects, the 101 appears the elder.
Yes, there are elements of the 101 frame tale that would seem to be prior to that of 1001 as we know it. But, and this gets a bit complicated, the 101 frame also shares certain motifs with the 19th century versions of the Nights that are not found in the oldest known MS, that of Galland. So probably we have one of two scenarios. One, the 101 frame as we have it today was composed at a later date and influenced by the later versions of the 1001 frame. Two, we must revise what we think we know about the history of the 1001 Nights, as we can no longer assume a progression from the early Galland MS to the revised 19th century editions. The latter seems more likely to me. But this is probably not the place to go into all that.
As for the stories Scheherazade tells in the 101 Nights, there are two, “The Ebony Horse” and “The Seven Viziers,” that are also in the large collection of the 1,001. Those two are stories that one finds all over the place. It seems as though almost any collection of popular tales will contain “The Ebony Horse,” and “The Seven Viziers” is well-known in many languages around the world.
The versions of these two tales that we have in A Hundred and One Nights seem to have fewer overt Islamic references than the versions in the 1001 Nights. We know those tales came from India or Iran, and thus would’ve gone through a presumably gradual process of Islamicization and Arabicization. The fact that Arab and Islamic elements are more prominent in the 1,001 Nights, does that mean that the 101 Nights are earlier? It’s quite possible.
Also, there are a couple of stories in A Hundred and One Nights that seem to be rudimentary versions of tales in the 1,001. “The Tale of the Young Egyptian and His Wife” is for instance a version of “The Three Apples.” I would guess that the rudimentary version came first.
What makes you feel that it’s rudimentary and not a spinoff?
The tale of “The Three Apples” is one of the most beautifully constructed tales in all of the 1,001 Nights. It’s concise, it has a wonderful black humor, and it’s very tightly constructed. The account that we have of “The Young Egyptian and His Wife” is a very simple tale of spousal jealousy that serves only to lead into the main narrative involving the attempt to retrieve his wife. Plus there is only one apple in the A Hundred and One Nights version.
It’s somewhat subjective, but it’s hard to imagine going from “The Three Apples” to the simple narrative that exists in “The Young Egyptian and His Wife.”
You also discuss, in the introduction, where the tales might have originated and how they might have traveled.
In the A Hundred and One Nights tale of “The Young Egyptian and his Wife,” in all the versions, the jealous husband dumps his wife in the Nile. But there was apparently a manuscript of A Hundred and One Nights, also in Maghribi script, which is now lost, in which the story was set in Baghdad, and the husband dumps the wife into the Tigris. This is an indication that they story migrated from Baghdad westward and eventually the setting was changed to something geographically closer. But again, does that mean that the whole collection migrated or just this particular tale?
That frame tale of 101 must have traversed the Mashreq, but in what form? Was it all assembled in the Maghreb? We don’t know. It certainly acquired Maghrebi language, all the texts are in Maghrebi script. But there’s not really that many overt references, in my view, that would say convincingly that it would be Maghrebi in origin. These tales could’ve been told anywhere.
The only thing we know with certainty is that it’s all more complicated than we imagined.
What are the markers that distinguish the 101 from the 1001?
Economy. And there’s an incredible sense of re-using limited material: the same words, the same motifs, the same events. In these texts, the stories always move very quickly, there’s always one astonishing thing after another. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But in this case, there’s also the sense of an author almost deliberately working with a limited repertoire of literary tools.
Yet the stories still work.
Yes! Even though we have all kinds of genres represented in this short book—warrior epics, treasure hunts, romance, etc.—there is still a sense of continuity, I think the book really has its own distinct character. The 1001 Nights has some thematic continuity in the early tales, those of the Porter and the 3 Ladies, the Two Viziers and the Hunchback and so on, where one finds themes of justice, tyranny, and the power of storytelling, but it’s hard to argue that this is maintained through the whole, vast collection. But A Hundred and One Nights really does have, not a thematic unity, but a formal one. We see the same events, the same motifs, sometimes even the same names, throughout in different contexts. And it works wonderfully.
Sometimes it makes me think of P.G. Wodehouse, one of my favorite authors, who prefaced one of his books by saying something like, for my last novel, a critic accused me of telling the same story with the same characters and simply changing the names. So to avoid the accusation this time, in this book, I’m going to tell the same story and I’m not even changing the names. But of course it all works beautifully.
The 101 is a lot like genre fiction, and it’s there for no other reason than to entertain us, and entertainment requires a certain kind of talent.
Also, in the short space of 101 nights, this collection gives us such a range of genres—we’ve got adventure stories, we’ve got love stories, we’ve got miniature versions of the popular epic. We have travel tales. One of my favorites is the last one, which occurs only in the manuscript that I used as a base, and it hinges around the use of a particular verse of poetry. The classical literature is full of these sorts of tricks where people send messages via poems. Here we have a fast-paced story that anybody can enjoy using the same sort of advanced literary tricks.
There’s a sense in which the repetition here allows the combination of the familiar and the surprising. This works at various levels in the text. There are all sorts of instances of recognition, where somebody is unmasked, but it never ceases to be pleasing. There are a number of standard set battle scenes, and even though we know that the hero is going to win every time, I’m always surprised at the pleasure I take in it.
There aren’t characters, though, as we’d understand them in Wodehouse or contemporary genre fiction.
In fact, there’s almost no character at all. It’s not like we get to know these familiar people, but instead it’s as if the events are the familiar characters.
To return to P.G. Wodehouse, instead of Bernie Wooster being that same lovable idiot, doing the same dumb things over and over again, we have the events. These motifs are what we get to know and love. The characters may be cardboard, but these motifs themselves almost have a personality.
Who do you imagine reading it in the English? Who do you hope these stories will come to?
One of the reasons why I think this was a good project for LAL is that clearly these stories were a significant part of Arab literary culture. Many people consumed literature in this form. Despite that, scholarly interest in this aspect of Arabic literature has been largely limited to the 1001 Nights and to a slightly lesser degree to the popular epic.
But those are sort of set apart from the rest of the corpus, and I’m not sure that’s fair. These were part of Arabic literary culture that’s been largely neglected. So when people give their courses on an introduction to Arabic literature, I’d like to see these types of texts integrated. I’d like it to be known that the 1001 Nights is not the only example of this sort of collection. It was far from a one-off. In fact, it was the tip of the iceberg, to use a non-Arabic metaphor.
This could also be of interest to those studying Middle Arabic.
Yes, that was foremost in my mind while doing the edition. The previous Arabic edition was published in Tunis in the 1970s, and the editor used the same manuscript as a base as I did. But he corrected the Middle Arabic and all the supposed mistakes, in keeping with the way things were often done.
At first I thought that I’d keep certain features of Middle Arabic. And then I thought, if I keep those, why wouldn’t I keep the other ones? Finally, I realized that I should just render the text as it’s found in the manuscript itself, with all its blemishes. The result is something where I know any number of Arabic speakers are going to open it to a random page, look at it, and think, This guy doesn’t know any Arabic at all! Look at this horrible edition!
But the Middle Arabic is important to understanding the use and circulation of these stories.
What became clearer and clearer to me, particularly with this manuscript that I used as a base, but also with the other ones, is that the language is related to the story. As I mentioned before, it seems to reflect an oral presentation and pronunciation.
It’s often assumed that these deviations from the classical norms are due to ignorance or carelessness. In many cases, that’s no doubt true. But what was maddening about this text was that it was so inconsistent. You could find both the correct form and the incorrect form in the same sentence, in the same line. Maybe the scribe was sort of nodding off. But there’s just too many of them to make any assumptions.
Can the Middle Arabic help us better understand how these tales were written and read?
There are some clues that lie in the manuscripts themselves. The best way to get at those questions is to preserve them in the way that we found them.
We have relatively few examples of full texts available in Middle Arabic. In fact, Middle Arabic scholars have been making a plea for more texts. (I would add my own plea for more scholars of Middle Arabic.) This will certainly be a contribution to the study of Middle Arabic.
Moreover, there’s a parallel between the author’s approach to the story and to the language. They both are full of mistakes. A place-name changes, a person’s name changes. There’s sort of a sloppiness to the narrative sometimes. It’s as if he’s going so fast he can’t remember whether they’re in Baghdad or Damascus, just as the scribe is also being careless, and he doesn’t remember what verb form he’s used. There’s this relaxed attitude toward both the language and to the story. He’s not going to let grammar get in the way of writing this down. And he’s not going to let details get in the way of telling this story.
It’s quite interesting to see the apparent sloppiness of the scribe. It’s apparently sloppy and yet it’s faithful to the tradition, with identical passages from manuscript to manuscript. It tells us something about language, about this type of narrative, and if I don’t have any conclusions, I hope I’ve at least contributed something to further work on these questions.
What other scholarly audiences do you imagine for the tales?
These stories contain many standard storytelling schemes. In the tale of the four companions, each person has a skill, and they have to accomplish a certain task—a trope very widespread across world literature.
So these stories, together with the 1001 Nights, show the Arabs had a place as part of the circulation of written literature—things like Canterbury Tales and The Decameron; these sorts of popular collections where one can trace the stories, the prototypes, and the motifs to various origins. Arabic culture was part of that. This is something that you don’t really get from the high classical tradition, which is much more concentrated on either the Islamic world itself and/or the Arabic language.
But Arabs did share in this global literary narrative culture, and these stories deserve a place amongst those who are interested in narrative forms the circulation of narrative forms.
You talked, at this year’s meeting of the American Oriental Society, about different translation strategies in translating these sorts of popular Arabic stories, the 101 and the 1001. Can you talk about yours?
Overall, the process of translation and revision was one of moving further and further from the Arabic. Originally, I thought I should try to preserve the simple style of the Arabic, try to be faithful to the text I was translating. But it became clear to me that I had to relax a bit and be more comfortable with taking liberties. I’m not talking about major liberties—I’m just talking about being free, particularly with the syntax. Because the syntax that was suited to an unlettered audience in a crowded room gets very monotonous in English.
I tried to vary the syntax, and also to convey the lightness of the Arabic. It doesn’t read like a classical Arabic text, or a classical history. It doesn’t read at all like a modern Arabic novel, either.
The closest analogy is probably a fairy tale. You’re conscious of being told, in plain language, something that’s not quite real, and I tried to render this in the English: to keep it plain, readable, and to have the speech sound like real people speaking, and yet to try to convey the sense of the unreal world you’re getting in the text.
The Arabic has an advantage in that, simple as it is, it’s aimed at an audience that knows this type of story, that knows the language, and certain references conjure up historical and literary references. This is one of the reasons why the Arabic text gets away with being so simple: the weight of history and culture. That’s pretty hard to explain, let alone to translate.
But as I said, the main merit of these texts is the fast-paced adventure, so trying to keep that in mind was my priority.
Eventually, a paperback English-only version of your translation of the 101 will also be coming out. Who do you see as the audience for that?
I’d like to think also that people who’d be interested in reading fast-paced fantastical stories could certainly pick up this and enjoy it. There is both the value with respect to Arabic studies and the scholarly value with respect to world literature. But perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that these stories are fun to read. That’s why they existed in the first place and we can still appreciate that.
This interview appeared first at the Library of Arabic Literature website. You can find more about A Hundred and One Nights and other LAL books there.
Also, read part one: A Hundred and One Nights: Part of the ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ of Popular Arabic Tales