A new English translation of the classic work of Arabic folktales, Arabian Nights is opening up a wider discussion about the importance of updating and building upon outdated, canonical texts.
The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1,001 Nights was published by Norton imprint Liveright at the end of 2021, and has received acclaim for its efforts to produce a text without the exoticism and sexism that is present in the older translations that have since come to be particularly well-known in the English-speaking world. The new translation’s editor, Paulo Lemos Horta, told The Guardian that the translation was developed with these flaws in mind, and that he and the translator intentionally set out to clear the work of these issues present in earlier, more prominent translations. It is also the first English translation of the work to be developed by a female translator.
“(Translator Yasmine) Seale’s distinctly contemporary and lyrical translations break decisively with this masculine dynasty (of prior translations), finally stripping away the deliberate exoticism of Orientalist renderings while reclaiming the vitality and delight of the stories, as she works with equal skill in both Arabic and French,” the book’s publisher writes.
Arabian Nights, also called One Thousand and One Nights, consists of a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian folk tales collected in the Arabic language during the period known as the Islamic Golden Age, which lasted from the mid-600s through the 1200s. The stories were likely first written as a single collection toward the end of this period, but the stories themselves date back several hundred years before this.
Translations of Arabian Nights have been published in European languages since the 18th Century — these translations have since played a major role in the literature and pop culture of the Western world. For example, Disney’s Aladdin is based on a story of the same name, which was first introduced to audiences outside of the Middle East in a French translation of the story collection (despite not being in the original, Arabic-language collection).
One of the most prominent translations in the English-speaking world was produced in 1885, and has been highly influential in the Anglosphere’s perception of the stories told in the collection.
The most recent translation has sparked a conversation about the importance of updating outdated translations of canonical, classic works of literature. Not only does Seale’s translation make the work more accessible — in the sense that it’s written in a more updated literary register that reflects contemporary sensibilities, rather than the literary English dialect of the nineteenth century — it also includes stories featuring female characters that had not been included in prior translations of the work.