18th Century Translations

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1706-21) is the very first translation in English of A Thousand and One Nights. It was translated from Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704-17) by an anonymous ‘Grub Street’ translator. Antoine Galland, a French scholar well-read in languages, is generally considered the European discoverer of the Arabic manuscript which was itself a translation of combined tales in Persian, Indian and other languages.The English translator, despite producing a superb translation lasting unchallenged for over a century, remains anonymous to this day. His choice of title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, rather than A Thousand and One Nights, is very significant as it from the start represented the book as something very different from what it really was. This also began a naming tradition of the book that all succeeding nineteenth-century translators have preserved even though each of them claimed to be directly translating from original manuscripts. 

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments was published at a time when Europe was reconnecting with its medieval past through an unquenchable thirst for fairy tales, something which massively contributed to the translation’s instantaneous success. It was even very popular amongst culturally influential figures such as Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and Charlotte Bronte. Its stories are alluded to in their work, its plot imitated, and its themes and characters adopted and reincarnated. [1]

The stories of The Nights are based within the frame of the story of Scheherazade, the wife of Prince Schahriar. The prince, having been betrayed by his first wife, decides that ‘no woman [is] chaste’. [2] He marries a new bride every night and has her beheaded when the first beam of dawn appears in the sky. When it is Scheherazade’s turn to marry the prince, to avoid a similar fate as her predecessors’, she devises the trick of telling the prince a new story every night. Her stories do not end by the end of the night, but become rather the beginnings of new stories to be told the following nights. Schahriar’s interest in the new story she promises to tell the following night saves Scheherazade’s head from the executioner’s scimitar at every break of dawn. Some of the popular stories told by Scheherazade to Schahriar, including Aladdin and Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, are not based on the Arabic manuscript, but are rather pseudo-translations devised by Galland to complete a thousand stories for the thousand nights he appears to have taken literally. [3]

19th Century Translations

From 1706-21 until 1840, this Grub Street version reigned supreme as the most comprehensive translation in English. Such uncontested supremacy faded away as the volumes of Edward William Lane’s translation appeared in 1836-40. Lane, translating an Arabic manuscript he managed to acquire while residing in Cairo, claimed superiority over the Grub Street translator. Nevertheless, Lane still maintained the incorrect title of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. His translation is highly criticised for its inconsistent and, at times, unjustified expurgation, as well as for its heavy annotations. Like the incorrect title selected by the Grub Street translator, Lane’s heavy annotations also became a tradition kept and exaggerated by successive late Victorian translators - particularly Richard Burton. It is worth noting here, in addition, that Richard Burton’s translation (1885-88) was an extension of John Payne’s archaic and limitedly published translation (1882-84). [4]

Ironically, neither Galland, Lane, Payne or Burton offered as authentic a translation as they claimed. The Arabic manuscripts themselves are translations and adaptations from older Persian manuscripts, which in turn were translations and adaptations from ancient Egyptian as well as other ancient cultures and languages. No one can offer an authentic translation of the original manuscript, no matter how hard they try, simply because the original manuscript does not exist and the sources of some stories are completely untraceable and unknown. Every culture and language that translated the book over time adapted it and adopted it as its own. Irwin explains that ‘nobody knows when The Nights began – or when they will end’ [5]; the ‘when’ here can be easily complemented with the ‘where’ also.

For over a century the Grub Street Arabian Nights’ Entertainments continued to be the sole representative of Middle Eastern cultures, whether Arabian or not. Subsequent translations could only attempt to get beyond its centrality by exaggerating its stories and excessively annotating them. Nevertheless its endless chain-like narrative has never stopped inspiring authors, artists and politicians, and its prisoner queen has been the subject of wild British dreams and illicit aspirations. [6] But did The Nights also inspire the course of British imperialism and turned its wheel towards what they called the ‘Arab world’?

Haythem was a MA student in Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University, whose dissertation explored the influence of Galland and Lane's translations of The Nights on British culture and its subsequent impact on Victorian imperialism. His dissertation was been awarded the Victorian Studies Prize. In 2015, he read papers at The London Victorian Studies Colloquium at Royal Holloway (University of London) and at the Romantic Orients Conference (Durham University). Follow him on twitter @HaythemBastawy

[1] R. Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2009) pp. 237-92[2] The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 9
[3] R. C. Johnson, ‘Beautiful Infidels: The Western Travels of ‘The Arabian Nights’’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 46 No. 3 (Spring 2013), pp. 434-39, p. 435
[4] C. Knipp, ‘The Arabian Nights in England: Galland’s Translation and Its Successors’, Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 44-54, p. 50
[5] Irwin, p. 4
[6] Irwin, p. 265


Image details: The image is a wood-engraving of ‘Sheherazade relating her first story to the sultan’ from Dalziel’s Arabian Nights. It was kindly scanned and uploaded by George P. Landow and made available on Victorian Web, online at: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/watson/25.html




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