Storytellers of the 1001 Nights: A Conversation with Paulo Horta

By Tugrul Mende

Last month, W.W. Norton published a new annotated edition of The Arabian Nights. The stories in French and Arabic was translated by artist and poet Yasmine Seale and edited by Paulo Horta. This edition included, for the first time, modern versions of the stories of Hanna Diyab whose travelogue was recently translated and published by The Library of Arabic Literature. In this interview, Paulo Horta talks through the process of publishing The Arabian Nights and why the stories needed a new translation in English. 

Why The Arabian Nights and not A Thousand and One Nights?

Paulo Lemos Horta: This was the publisher’s call. Norton’s Annotated series refers to story collections by their most familiar titles: The Annotated Mother Goose, The Annotated Brothers Grimm. These are not the original titles for either collection. Perrault’s would translate as Tales of Times Past, and the Brothers Grimms’, more prosaically, as Children’s and Household Tales. Other titles in the collection are streamlined: The Annotated Alice.  

Arabian Nights is fitting since the remit of this edition was to have the most famous tales, which were the ones added in French in the early 1700s from the storytelling of the Syrian Hanna Diyab, from “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” through “The Night Adventures of Harun al-Rashid.” In his Book of Travels, Diyab mentions he helped an “old man” in Paris who translated the 1001 Nights by telling him stories—he does not claim the stories he told Galland belonged to the story collection. And these tales had not belonged to the 1001 Nights proper. Arabian Nights refers to the story collection as it arrived in English from French–to this more expansive set of stories, inclusive of additions from Diyab’s telling like “Aladdin.” 

As a title, I much prefer 1001 Nights, its promise of a thousand nights and a night as in the Arabic Alf Layla wa-Layla. It speaks to Shahrazad’s predicament, wringing yet one night more from death, a defiance of finitude. It speaks to how the story collection was continuously put together, scribes and copyists in Arabic mix-and-matching from similar collections. 1001 Nights speaks to the Persian origins of the frame, and to the French and cross-cultural evolution of the collection in world letters. It reminds me of the games with numbers that have always interested me in the story collection, from my childhood. Whenever I can I use the title 1001 Nights, as when I have taught courses on the collection for New York University and Harvard’s Institute for World Literature. 

Of course, when one teaches the 1001 Nights, one teaches the established original core inclusive of “Qamar al Zaman and the Princess Budur” and “The Hunchback,” greatest hits by any criteria, be it the value in the canon of Arab tales of theNights, or their impact on George Eliot and Charles Dickens (I had hoped to include more tales from Arabic in theAnnotated). And I confess I heard the voice of Aboubakr Chraïbi, along with Ulrich Marzolph, the greatest scholar of the Nights. Only a few weeks ago, when I last saw him in Paris, he was again explaining to an audience, no! no! no! “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” are not in the 1001 Nights!  In the case of the Annotated, the publishing convention of referring to the story collection as “The Arabian Nights” proves fitting for a selection of hits heavy on Hanna Diyab’s contributions to the French Nights. 

What brought you to this project, editing this edition of the Nights

PLH:  In 2016, as my book Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights was about to come out, W.W. Norton approached me to edit the Annotated Arabian Nights

The press was interested in the argument made by my book, that we should take another look at “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and other tales added in French to the corpus of the Nights

The French translator, Antoine Galland, who added these tales, has long been credited, to quote the titles of several books, as their author, creator, inventor. And that by adding these tales to the Nights, he had taught the French, the world, to read them as a repository of marvels, both in the sense of riches and the supernatural. 

Now Antoine Galland in his diary had noted that a Maronite from Aleppo had given him a manuscript of Aladdin, and told him several other tales, including “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Banu,” “The Jealous Sisters”, and “The Night Adventures of Harun al Rashid.”  

But in the absence of that manuscript, which to date has not surfaced, the tendency for three centuries was to credit Diyab with only the raw material, or outlines, for these famous tales, and Galland, for plot and character development, polish and style, for elevating the material to literature. 

The discovery of Diyab’s Book of Travels, chronicling his journey from Aleppo to Paris and back, I argued, merited a reconsideration of these tales added in French. Diyab was a fine spinner of tales in his own right, a brilliant improviser, knitting new ones from old, and may have woven the imprint of his experiences and imagination into the fabric of the tales. I’d add that many of the “modern” details long credited to Galland—such as Parizade receiving the same education as her brothers in “Jealous Sisters,” are already present in the notes Galland took from Hanna Diyab’s storytelling

Do you remember the first time when you heard stories of Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin, or Shahrazad? Were they parts of your childhood or did you read them later?

PLH: : The Arabian Nights stories were the first ones I have ever heard. My mother was an orphan in the north of Brasil and the first book she was given by her adoptive father was a copy of 1001 Nights. Consequently, when I was growing up, these were the first stories she told me, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” My parents lived in the Middle East before I was born, and I grew up between Persian carpets and low Arabic trays. This is the context in which I first heard the stories. On my father’s side, the fascination with the Middle East derived from family history. A great uncle had done extensive genealogical research. I grew up hearing stories about how many branches of the family made its way from Portugal and Spain, to the Azores, to Brazil. To prove the link to Portugal in the application for citizenship, a group of cousins did further genealogical research, and a clearer picture emerged. There was an extra step. Once exiled from Portugal in the 1500s, the family went back to Aleppo, where cousins and uncles lived, and then from Aleppo to the Azores, and later Brazil…  When I became interested in the Nights as a scholar, I ran across the reference to Diyab being from Aleppo and I was fascinated by the possibility that two great crossroads of commerce and stories, Aleppo and Paris, contributed in the early 1700s to the addition of Hanna Diyab’s tales to the French translation of the 1001 Nights. We’re only beginning to realize just how true this is in the case of tales like “Aladdin.”    

Why this edition, why now?

PLH: This is the first modern edition of the Nights to include all Diyab’s tales made famous in world literature and cinema, from the Brontës, Proust, Mahfouz, and Soyinka, to Lotte Reiniger, to The Thief of Bagdad, and the Hollywood and Bollywood traditions. Among these most famous tales, “The Jealous Sisters” anchored illustrated editions of theNights, and “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Banu” formed the basis for Reiniger’s feature-length animated film of 1926. Yet these two tales did not exist in recent editions of the Nights.  

Photo: @dakkar

Norton gave me a remit to produce an illustrated “best of,” a greatest hits of the “Arabian Nights,” and as such, the remit was expressly to bring back into the fold the Hanna Diyab tales: among them “Aladdin,” “Ali Baba,” “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Banu,” “The Night Adventures of Harun al Rashid,” and “The Jealous Sisters.” This presented a challenge as other than “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba,” the Diyab tales were not available in recent translations. I took the initiative to commission new translations of all the Diyab tales by Yasmine Seale and fortunately Norton embraced these and my pitch for retranslating tales also from Arabic.

The “greatest hits” focus is not new to the Nights, but is very much in keeping with other books in the Norton series. The Brother Grimm and other books in the Annotated series often consist of selections of the most popular tales. These are not critical editions but meant for the general reader, the first-time reader. Given this framework, I sought the greatest amount of balance possible given constraints. I wanted at least the core of the original cycle of tales common to a significant number of known Arabic manuscripts present. It was vital for me for the Arabic collection of the 1001 Nights to be represented with “The Story of King Shahriyar and the Vizier’s Daughter, Shahrazad,” “The Merchant and the Jinni,” “The Fisherman and the Jinni,” “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” and the frame of “The Three Apples.” And it was also important to give at least a taste of tales based on popularity in the Middle East, from “Sinbad the Sailor,” which Galland did have in a manuscript at his disposal, and “Dalila the Crafty,” which he did not. 

I’ve been a resident of Abu Dhabi for the past decade, so if the remit was to include the most famous tales that influenced high and popular culture and cinema and television, I wanted to extend that to the choices made by networks and showrunners in the Middle East. “Sinbad” and “Dalila the Crafty” were natural choices given series produced based on those characters. 

Of course, many of the Diyab tales added by Galland are also popular in the region, from which they came via his storytelling. And “Dalila the Crafty” resonates not only in Ramadan serials in the Middle East, but outside as a vital source for works of popular culture such as  S.A. Chakraborty’s brilliant fantasy series The Daevabad Trilogy.

Do you think that Aladdin is Hanna Diyab’s alter ego, or an alternate version of himself? 

Antoine Galland: “The old man” in Diyab’s Book of Travels

PLH: Aladdin in its structure and themes was a story that Hanna Diyab would have encountered growing up in Aleppo, which may have been circulating already in manuscript form at the time, as Ibrahim Akel’s recent work has shown. Diyab’s first contribution was to choose this tale to tell to Antoine Galland. Would the tale have appealed to him because it dealt with a character who shared certain traits with himself? Probably—at the start of the tale the Maghrebi magician insinuates himself into Aladdin’s life with the promise of helping him establish a stand selling cloth in the souk, which is what Diyab wanted for himself. Aladdin did not have the patience to apprentice in the family trade, and neither did Diyab as we encounter him at the start of the Book of Travels, frustrated with having to wait his turn as the youngest of several brothers. Aladdin’s father is dead; Diyab’s father is missing from his account, presumably also dead. These resemblances do not necessarily mean that Diyab wrote Aladdin as a sort of autobiography—they speak to how the bones of an existing tale may have spoken strongly to him. No doubt Diyab may have fleshed out details with reference to his own experience, whether consciously or not, as storytellers—and translators!—tend to do. I have written about some of the echoes I have found between Aladdin’s story and Diyab’s journey west. 

Hanna Diyab has received a lot of attention in the past few years.

PLH: I have made a strong case for Hanna Diyab with regard to his creativity, imagination, and his own qualities as a storyteller. We recognize theArabian Nights as stories within stories. We should start taking seriously the stories that had been added to the Nights because of Hanna Diyab. They had been taken out by translators such as Husain Haddawy. I think that Diyab’s role had been overlooked. 

There are some similarities between the stories that Hanna Diyab told Antoine Galland and his own experiences in Versailles just before he told the stories which are uncanny. I still don’t know which way the influence may have gone. The overlap of themes, the descriptions of the palace. It is possible that Hanna experienced sights in Versailles that made it into the stories like “Aladdin” and “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Banu”—of the grounds, the gardens, the fountains, the palace, the bejewelled princesses. We are not in a position where we can be sure that it was his life experience that imprinted the story.

Why does there need to be a fresh translation of the Nights, and why Yasmine Seale’s translations? What do these new translations bring, artistically and intellectually, to our understanding and appreciation of the Nights? 

Paulo Lemos Horta

PLH: In English we have far fewer translations of the Nights than we might imagine. It is a bit of a fun, Borgesian game, to dive into the archives of English translators of the 1001 Nights. If you haven’t read Marvellous Thieves, here’s a bit of a spoiler. You think we have a plenitude, and then you find there’s much less than you’ve been told. Edward Lane’s is a partial translation, as was that by Henry Torrens, who preceded Lane (quite likely Lane rushed his version to compete with Torrens’, not knowing the Afghan campaign would limit Torrens to a single volume). Husain Haddawy’s was deliberately partial; he excluded even “Qamar al Zaman and the Princess Budur” that started but didn’t finish in the single manuscript he deemed worthy. But at least they translated from Arabic (Lane and Torrens with great help from others). Jonathan Scott, John Payne, Richard Burton—their claims to produce the first full translations from Arabic evaporate, and in their cases, they relied not only on collaborators, but to a great extent on previous translations from Arabic into French and German.

I don’t mean to be unfair to the Victorian translators. Lane would later have to literally write (or cowrite with al-Dusuqi) an Arabic-English lexicon. Torrens, in Calcutta and Simla, didn’t even have the teachers and manuscripts at Lane’s disposal in Cairo. According to their heirs and biographers, Payne and Burton would have also learnt Arabic before the proper books were available to help them. The archives I’ve visited testify to the labor involved. Lane experimented with various iterations to produce even just a few lines of verse. Payne was curious what the Nights would sound like in English without paragraph breaks or punctuation, mirroring the Arabic manuscripts at this disposal. A poet, he wanted the prose to read like poetry. Comparing the published versions with previous attempts by Lane, Payne, and Burton, it is obvious, as Torrens openly admits in his preface, that they tried different styles before they hit upon the final version. All this is a testament to a rigorous discipline—Burton’s notebooks on his other literary passion, Camões, reveal he aimed to translate the complete work of the Renaissance Portuguese poet, and consulted every available source in the original. But in the case of translation from Arabic, the general pattern that emerges is that English translators of the Nights quickly or eventually tire. They fall back on the solutions found in the French, not only for the occasional inquiry, but for stretches at a time. Translations from French come just that more quickly and easily.

Bruce Fudge has noted that, with all due respect to Malcolm Lyons, we still don’t have a modern version of the Nights in English as good or as handy as André Miquel’s in French. So yes, there was the need for a fresh translation. 

Why Yasmine Seale? Because the remit called for the inclusion of the tales from the French along with those from the Arabic—that is, because of Hanna Diyab—the ideal solution was to find someone that could translate from both tongues. While Norton thought one could use out-of-copyright versions for the French tales and Haddawy’s for the Arabic, I took the initiative to commission Seale’s versions of Diyab’s tales from French. (She was recommended at a coffee I had with Barbara Epler by a scout for a French press, who presented Seale as singularly qualified to translate from both French and Arabic.) I wanted a voice that would bring the Nights into the 21st century, Seale’s interest in and translations of contemporary plays from Arabic recommended her. If Norton had not liked her versions, I’d have then tried further recommendations I received via New Directions and the world of publishing, also of translators attuned to the contemporary. Soon it became apparent that there’d be advantages to having Seale translate from both French and Arabic for the Annotated. 

Yasmine Seale

One of the problems with the Victorian translators is that they imbue the story collection with their own prejudices, ad-libbing and improvising and interpolating, as if the medieval tales didn’t pose enough problems in this respect! And a key complaint against the Haddawy version by my Arab and Muslim students was his insistence on “demon” for “jinni,” which does not convey a sense of a being possessed of free will, and one who can chose the good. They also felt it played into Orientalist misrepresentations of Islam, with an accent on the “demonic.” I had heard the complaint from too many students across the years to ignore it.  

In the archives, I became aware of how Lane and Burton (but also Muhsin Mahdi at Harvard) all made editorial choices that cut women from the stories. Marina Warner has complained about the absence of Dalila and Marjana (from “Ali Baba”) in most editions on the market, and I wanted to put them back in (Diyab’s tales have strong female leads such as Pari Banu, Marjana, and Parizade). Ideally, I wanted to commission the first translation of the Nights by a woman translator. Since Seale was the first name on the list of the recommendations passed onto me by my contacts in publishing, this made sense in that respect; also as I was signed by Bob Weil and Pete Simon, who had commissioned Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. But I’m not sure this begins to describe the achievement of Seale’s versions of the tales.

After the polysyllabic archaisms of Payne and Burton, Seale brings a poet’s ear for sound and the rhythm of iambs that sound good in English. Lane, Payne, and Burton aren’t just impenetrable because they were Victorians—each evoked archaic registers and soundscapes. Lane, despite the fluency of his drafts, opted for the English of the King James Bible. Payne and Burton tried to outdo each other in courting the favor of pre-Raphaelites and Decadents who had made of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat a smash in bohemian circles. Only Torrens had aimed for a natural tone in English—but Lane translated against Torrens, Burton against Payne. Once what Borges aptly termed the hostile dynasty of translators of the Nights was in motion, each felt they must do something eye-catching and spectacular to justify the new text. The Nights were an excuse for the translator’s acrobatics. I wanted versions that would recover the force of the stories themselves. Hopefully, Seale would strip away the Orientalism from the tales.

Also listen:

The Book of Travels,” a talk with Diyab translator Elias Muhanna

A Thousand and One Dreams,” a talk with Nights translator Yasmine Seale