‘Inventing a Night Language’: On Translating the 1001

On Thursday, July 16 three Nights-obsessed scholars, writers, and translators came together to talk about the collection’s global influence:

The event was supported by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA), and the three speakers were: Richard van Leeuwen, whose The Thousand and One Nights and Twentieth-Century Fiction won a 2020 SZBA; Marina Warner, who was previously honored by the SZBA for her Stranger Magicand Yasmine Seale, translator of Aladdin who is working on a new translation of the Nights, and who will be — as Warner pointed out during the event — the first woman to translate the storied collection into English.

“There’s famous essay by Borges about the Nights, describing the competition between all the beards, all the bearded men who are trying to outmatch the predecessor,” Seale said during the event. “I like being the first beardless translator.”

The 60-minute discussion, chaired by The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan, ranged widely, from the role they played in eighteenth and nineteenth century European thought to how, as van Leeuwen said, the Nights operates as “origin story for storytelling; it explains why it is necessary for human life.”

Seale has written and spoken about her forthcoming translation of the Nights, has read excerpts aloud, and has run short fragments on a Twitter bot called @the_small_hours. Yet this was perhaps Seale’s most extensive discussion of the theory behind her translation strategies for the Nights.

Although the Nights have been translated several times, Seale said she felt in a lucky position, as there aren’t many in comparison with other great classics. “For instance, with The Odyssey, there are hundreds of translations. With the Nights, there are a few famous ones, but the famous nineteenth century translations are all quite eccentric documents.”

She noted that the more recent translations have been done by academics, who have turned the Nights into “quite straightforward prose. I have nothing against academics, but I think that there is room for a translation that engages with the musicality and the rhythmic quality of these stories, which I think is just as important as replicating the meaning of the words.”

Yet, as Seale pointed out, there is not a single fixed Nights to which one can point. At one point, she likened understanding the Nights to understanding the ocean:

There is no fixed text, it’s incredibly slippery, there is no canon. I’m under contract to produce a complete translation of the Nights, but it’s very unclear what that would look like. This wouldn’t be a problem if I were living in another time, as Richard said. Until quite recently, translating meant adapting.

The stories have been through numberless transmogrifications, both before they came to Arabic and since. And, as Seale said, “there’s a long tradition of the Nights changing every time it’s translated.” But contemporary expectations for translations are different; they are, as Seale said, for “completeness and authenticity.”

She added:

What I would love to do is to be able to give an account of the journey this text has been on and somehow to embed that archaeological quality…in the text, it’s a palimpsest that’s been added to, and written over, over a thousand years.

Warner had earlier noted that the Nights often “leaps out of its literary form in many respects. Even the first theme parks were full of Oriental fantasies based on the Nights,” and Seale echoed that she too was interested in how the Nights is “constantly leaping off the page, looking for other forms, other incarnations,” adding: “I have fantasies of trying to make it as a 3D object, or as a box rather than a book It seems somehow unsuited to the flat page.”

‘A marathon of memory’

Although these were written and not oral tales, Seale said that — in the translation process — she wants to “take seriously” the idea that Scheherazade is engaged in a performance:

It’s a kind of marathon of memory and physical endurance, or at least that’s the conceit. But I wanted to take the conceit seriously and to try and find a form for it, which got me to thinking about breath, and voice…. She’s a kind of channel. It’s breath that has to keep going and is always threatened with being cut short. She has to keep talking and spinning it out. I was also thinking about the fact that these are stories for the night. There’s a lovely concept in Arabic of samar, which is evening conversation, things that you say at night. I wanted to see if I could create a night-language, or find some form to reflect the fact that this is a night work…and the fact that these stories take place where dreams should be.

In formal terms, Seale said, that means she’s made the decision to make every night a single run-on sentence, “and the idea is that, if she were to stop, stopping would be fatal. There is no finality, finality has to constantly be deferred.”

Also, on creating a night language:

I was also thinking about how to don’t speak in complete sentences at night; night thoughts are more like phrases — musical phrases — so there was something interesting when I stopped using sentences and instead moved into this other more fluid form; I found that I could have musical moments within the line, which made it easier to recreate that effect in Arabic, because there is no punctuation in the Arabic, which is not peculiar to the Nights… So it really has this effect of … you sort of don’t know where it’s going to go next, and I like this idea of a sentence that runs on and keeps changing the subject and resists or rebels against the units of daytime attention. And maybe nighttime attention is more wondering.

The difficulty and the pleasure of the translation, she said, was trying to preserve the text’s fluidity, “its ocean-like quality, and not trying to pin it down.”

Warner asked, on the topic of translation, how Seale intended to deal with the racism in the Nights, and whether she intended to replicate it or adapt. Seale said she had been thinking about it:

This is a conversation I’ve been having with my editors for some time now. I think the fact of its fluidity…gives the translator license to think hard about: What are the stories that we want to continue to tell and why do we want to continue to tell them…rather than uncritical deference to this work. Even from version to version, these details change. I think I would defend writing it for the twenty-first century.

‘The dark pleasures of language’

When asked about her favorite story, Seale said it was probably the story of the porter and the three women of Baghdad, “which is a wonderful story which combines a great deal of material detail abut life in Baghdad, it begins with a fantastic shopping expedition in which all kinds of fruits and perfumes are described.” Although there are many sensory pleasures to the telling, Seale said, “it’s also about language, and the dark pleasures of language, and language being connected to sensuality, female sexuality, mystery, all these things together, which I think is characteristic of Nights as a whole.”

At one point, van Leeuwen jumped in and said: “I can hardly wait to read your translation. How long do we have to wait?”

Seale said she is currently working on edits for the annotated from Norton, which she expects will be out next year.

Watch the whole talk:

Seale reads The Three Ladies of Baghdad:


  1. Thanks for this insightful article. But it would be more accurate to speak of Seale as the first woman to translate the Arabian Nights INTO ENGLISH.
    Before that, the oldest existing text was translated into German by Claudia Ott in 2004.

    1. Yes, thank you, we made the correction.

  2. Two 19th century women, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, translated two stories from the Nights into English, traditionally called The Story of Haykar the Sage and The King and his Vizier’s Wife. I’m writing my PhD on how they moved the stories away from typical Orientalist renderings of the Nights in Victorian literature. Of course its not the Nights in its entirety, but i just wanted to give visibility to these oft forgotten women translators.

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