The Arabian Nights as Translated by Husain Haddawy

I picked up The Arabian Nights the other day and I’ve had a great time reading it so far.

I picked up The Arabian Nights the other day and I’ve had a great time reading it so far.

Editor Husain Haddawy has most likely edited The Arabian Nights back into the style, authenticity and culture bearing that it deserves. In the prefaces to the actual Nights, Haddawy talks about all the previous translations and publishings, both by eastern and western authors, and makes a good case that his translations reaches nearer to the base truths of the original oral story telling.

I like the idea that Haddawy is striving for authenticity and is trying to convey ancient colloquialisms into a style more befitting today’s language – and in english at that.

What bothers me, though, is his choice to render ancient thoughts, ideas and expressions with modern thoughts, ideas and expressions.

For example, an early story has a man calling an unfaithful wife a “slut”. Almost any other word would have lifted that phrase, that passage and that story to a different and better literary level.

And, yes, I get it and I sympathize that Haddawy is attempting to bring what the baseness of the storytelling, which he believes, and somewhat rightly, is what makes the stories tangible and real and endearing, into an accurate written form.

The problem is the base expressions of Arabic do not work when translated to the base expressions of english. The Nights are an exotic story to western audiences and presenting them in common western language is not going to work.

Haddawy claimed that, having experience in the east and in the west, he perhaps was better suited to making the most authentic editing yet of the ancient stories. I think what Haddawy fails to understand is that knowing the basest words in english and knowing how they map to the basest thoughts in other languages, even if it is literally accurate, does not a good story make. He admits as much when he tells the reader that the Nights were meant to be spoken, to be acted, and were never intended to be read.

It’s not just that one example, though. Let me give you another. Many, many occurrences of “By God”, as in “By God, this is an amazing story!”, are spread throughout the story. The phrase “Damn you,” is also strewn through out. These phrases are fine by themselves but I’m almost sure they don’t fit the spirit of the story. I also don’t think Haddawy understands how they’ll be read by western readers. Hearing “By God” and “Damn you” reminds me of some old english colonel with a thick accent talking to a subordinate, something like “By jove, Holmes, you’ve done it again!”  or, again, some thickly accented englishman, “Damn you, boy, can’t you see I’m reading the news!” It’s so distracting trying to read around that in your head when you want to get into the stories of the Nights.

It’s tragic, almost. The extent to which Haddawy goes to claim integrity and authenticity, and the claim he makes to be better suited to the translation, is amusing when he comes up with english phrases that don’t have the right ring at all. I honestly wonder if he knows the language he’s using all that well – and I mean that in all its breadth and depth because apparently he’s an english professor.

Oral stories are one thing. Written stories are another. The Nights has to be understood this way if anyone wants to write them down.

You can’t just literally translate the Nights like that. You have to give it all the effort and energy, in all the chosen words and phrases, that the original vocal story teller would’ve put into their word, phrases, gestures, actions, tones, voices and faces.

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