“The Scheherazade Gambit”

So apparently screenwriters have distilled Scheherazade’s success to a gambit: convince your would-be killer that “you are more fun alive than dead.”  They give an interesting series of examples from genres spanning manga and anime, film, literature, video games, and something called “real life.”


Antoine Galland V.S. Muhsin Mahdi

Even though Antoine Galland and Muhsin Mahdi both translated the same text—the fourteenth century Syrian text of the Arabian Nights—their introductions to the sultaness in the frame story drastically differ. In Galland’s translation, Scheherazade is predestined for greatness, while in Mahdi’s translation, Shahrazad accomplishes her task through her great will. In the following discussion, Galland’s translation will use the name “Scheherazade” and Mahdi’s “Shahrazad.”

Shahrazad exists by association through her father “the vizier,” who had an older daughter called Shahrazad and a younger one called Dinarzad.” She is unusual because she is “intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined. She [has] read and learned (13).” Yet, she learns her knowledge from endless study and practice. She is nothing like the Scheherazade who is an independent woman of her own existence. Scheherazade certainly dedicates a great deal of time to study; however, she is gifted from the beginning with “penetration infinitely beyond her sex, never forget[ting] anything, a perfect beauty, and [love] by her father” (10).

Ironically, even though Scheherazade has all these great qualities, it is her beauty that “charmed Shariyar when she is unveiled.” On the other hand, Shahrazad delights Shahriyar when she volunteers herself to him. She is not favored by him in the beginning; therefore, all her moves must be carefully planned out. She does not tear up and ask for her sister immediately when she is unveiled. Instead, she waits until she is in bed with the king, which is supposedly when the king trusts her more.

The bride—and the story teller to the caliph—is certainly the most important figure in the story. Without her, the story will never start and the caliph may simply become another tyrant. Yet, she arrives and fills him up with story. While both Scheherazade and Sharazad use the same strategy, they are two different characters. Scheherazade echoes with Joan of Arc and all the other French novel characters. There are special characteristics attributed to her right from the beginning. The reader knows she will survive the king’s cruel vow and have a happy ending. On the other hand, Shahrazad struggles throughout to earn her ultimate happiness.

We had many discussions in class about the “a-psychological” qualities to Mahdi’s translation. This is probably due to its near mirroring translation of the Arabic text and hence its proximity to the terse style of the Quran that leaves much of the imagination to the reader. Talks about Scheherazade preparing stories during the day were not heard when we read Mahdi’s translation. In other words, Mahdi’s translation induces much imagination from the readers.

On the contrary, Galland simply prepares the readers too well to think of any extraordinary concepts. When the sultan answers “with all my hearts” to listen to Scheherazade’s story, he gives away his emotion and promises the safety of Scheherazade’s life (17), unlike Mahdi’s sultan who simply replies “yes” (18). As the readers constantly worry, Shahrazad plans her every step carefully and strategically to protect herself, whereas Scheherazade will always have her beauty to save her life.

— Winnie

Small Yet Puzzling Discrepencies

Although a comparison between more varied editions of the Nights might provide for a richer blog post, there are slight differences between Galland’s French text and the Oxford edition translation that have been puzzling me a bit. Despite the fact that the Oxford edition is translated directly from Galland’s Les mille et une nuits and that the translation is extremely faithful to Galland’s text, I noticed some discrepancies between the two works. The main thing I noticed is that in the French text, the stories begin with a quick reference to Scheherazade, bringing us back to “reality”, even if only for a few words, while in the English translation, the reader is immediately launched in to the next tale without any reference to the outer frame story.

One specific example of this is at the beginning of the story “The Story of the Two Sisters who envied their younger sister”. In the French version, the text would be directly translated as follows:

“The sultana Shcheherazade, continuing to hold in suspense the Sultan of the Indies by the telling of her tales, to know if he would condemn her to death or let her live, told him a new tale as follows: Sire, she said,…”

A more subtle example of this is in the beginning of the story of Aladdin. In the Oxford version the story begins with “In the capital of one of the largest and richest provinces of the kingdom of China…(651)”. In the French text, the beginning reads as follows: “Sire, in the capital of a kingdom of China, extremely rich and of a vast expanse, of which the name currently does not come to mind…”

Although the two sentences provide the same information, the English text leaves out those small intimations that bring us back to the bigger picture. With no intention of redundancy on my behalf, one last example of this would be the introduction to “The Story of the Enchanted Horse”:

Oxford Version: “On the Novrouz, that is to say, the new day(796)…”

French text: “Scheherazade, in continuing to tell the Sultan of the Indies her pleasant stories from which he took such great pleasure, continued with the story of the enchanted horse. Sire, she said, as Your Majesty does not ignore, the Novrouz, that is to say the new day (324)…”

Once again, the reader is reminded of the frame story and we see Scheherazade catering to the Sultan’s ego by using phrases such as “as Your Majesty does not ignore”, but we also see some feeling from the Sultan when Galland writes “her pleasant stories from which he took such great pleasure”. Skimming through the French text, these types of introductions seem to be consistent. So why, in such and otherwise seemingly faithful translation, were these particular details omitted?

Many criticize Galland’s style and interpretation of the Nights as being superfluous and on the polar end of the spectrum from the original Arabic text, stylistically speaking, and although it is not as consistent and uniform as Haddawy’s “O happy king…”, some might argue that including these references to Scheherazade beginning a new tale it is better than completely ignoring it. On the other hand, harsh critics of Galland could blame him for taking it too far and adding more than necessary, especially since even in the original Nights, we lose sight of Scheherazade completely.

I have two proposals as to why these components may have been removed from the Oxford edition. The first is that when we read a book, we all have different mental images and paintings that we create in our minds of what we are reading. Perhaps Galland’s mental image included a caricature-like Scheherezade, with exaggerated cleverness, and perhaps the Oxford translator did not see Scheherazade as strongly and therefore, would not feel the need to include the possible intimations of Scheherazade’s catering to the king’s ego as aforementioned in the third example. The second is that, as discussed in class, people simply cannot help but add their own two cents to the Nights. Everyone has a different idea of how things should be translated, and perhaps the translator of the Oxford edition wanted to somehow do more than a mere translation and wanted be responsible for a tiny piece of the infamous Nights, somehow.

As unbiased as we all wish ourselves to be, it’s just human nature to, even if only the tiniest bit, subconsciously and deep down, believe that we know what is really best in certain situations, and I am willing to admit that even the choices behind my non-professional translations of the above extracts have some sort of subconscious bias of this sort behind them. In all honesty, if it were any other work, it would bother me more that the Oxford translator left those details out. However, the fact that the Nights comes from such an array of places and anonymous authors–who probably edited and removed Lord-only-knows-what from the stories that were included before they received the joint manuscript themselves–just makes me view all of these different translations as someone trying to spread the joy the received from the Nights as they personally saw fit. 

Haddawy vs. Galland: Description vs. Emotion

As we may expect, Galland westernizes “The Story of the Hunchback” from Husain Haddawy’s version. It could be expected that Galland’s lavish descriptions would significantly lengthen the story by adding dialogue, character development, and extravagant descriptions. However, upon examination, I found that in fact, the works tend to balance each other out.

First, the setup of the story in Haddawy spans just over seven pages (up until The Christian Broker’s Tale), and eight nights. Galland’s translation is just over six pages, not broken up by nights at all. Galland omits all of the poetry and verses (as well as Nights and Scheherazade’s role) that Haddawy’s version contains. In the Haddawy version, the story takes place in China, whereas in the Galland version, it takes place in “Casgar”.

Galland’s characters, such as the Jewish doctor, tend to have more exclamation and dialogue. For example, in Haddawy, his reaction is simply “…By the hoof of Edras’s ass, how shall I get this dead body out of my house?” and to his wife, “Why do you sit still? If the day breaks and he his still here, we will both lose our lives. You are naïve and careless”. This is expected, as women are usually seen as more evil and manipulative in original Arabic texts, as Haddawy claims to stem almost directly from Muhsin Mahdi. Galland, on the other hand, gives more expression to the Jewish doctor, and gives and insight to the reader into what the character is thinking: “…I am ruined: Mercy on me, they will be here out of hand, and lug me out of my house for a murderer”. Galland adds two more paragraphs in which both the Jewish doctor and his wife are mourning the murder of the Hunchback, and the wife asks why and how her husband has done such a thing. In both versions, when the doctor’s wife has the idea to put the corpse in the Muslim bachelor’s (Haddawy), or mussulman/Turk’s (Galland) house, what Haddawy conveys in 25 words, Galland makes into a paragraph, and expresses in 78.

Yet, although the dialogue is more extensive in Galland, the descriptive imagery in Haddawy is much more thorough than that of Galland’s. In Haddawy’s version, the Hunchback is “smartly dressed in a folded inner robe and an open outer robe, with gathered sleeves and an embroidered collarband, in the Egyptian style,…”, the description continues. Galland does not mention any description of physical appearance whatsoever, nor does he outright state that the Hunchback is drunk; he solely mentions that tailor “carried him home”. In Haddawy’s version, he mentions that the Hunchback is drunk through his verses, saying “they saw that he was drunk, reeking of wine” (the words drunk and wine are mentioned multiple times). Haddawy is much more direct and to the point with his audience here, while with Galland, it is ambiguous.

Another main plot difference is the way in which the Hunchback dies. In the Haddawy version, the tailor is made responsible for the Hunchback’s death, forcing him to eat the piece that the tailor knows will choke him, and doing nothing to save him. In Galland’s story, the Hunchback “unluckily” swallowed a large bone, and no matter what the tailor and his wife tried to do to save him, nothing could stop him from death. The tailor in addition adds in his explanation to the chief justice “my wife and I did our utmost to relieve him”. This element adds sympathy from the reader to the tailor and his wife that the Haddawy story does not contain.

Galland chooses to abridge certain, descriptive parts of the text, and lengthen other, dialogue and character development pieces of the story. Galland also Westernizes his version with his terminology, fluidity, and lack of prose. When the watchman catches the Christian broker beating the Muslim and tells him to get up, he nears the hunchback and says, “By God, this is a fine thing, a Christian killing a Muslim!” In Galland, the watchman says, “is it thus that a Christian dares to assassinate a mussulman?” The ideas and concepts are similar, but their manners and approaches in conveying them differ slightly due to the nature and structure of the way they set up their stories, as well as the historical context.

The lack of separation between nights in Galland’s version makes it much less classic and much more informal and storytelling.  The two versions emphasize different literary techniques; Haddawy focuses on description and structure of the original Nights as well as prose, while Galland focuses on character development, dialogue, and plot advancement. Galland’s version is more westernized and modernized, perhaps more aesthetically pleasing to the audience. However, Haddawy stays more true to Muhsin Mahdi’s original 1001 Nights in terms of culture and historical content.

The Hunchback – Galland, Haddawy and Mahdi

     I decided to compare the introductory scene of The Hunchback (until the hunchback is taken to the Jewish doctor’s house) among Galland, Haddawy and Mahdi’s Arabic edition because they are all based off of the same 14th century manuscript.  The differences between the Galland version and the other two are astounding. (I won’t discuss Mahdi and Haddawy separately very much because they are very similar to each other.)

     First, this scene in Haddawy’s and Mahdi’s versions last over the course of three nights and 2 to 2 ½ pages. In Galland, the same scene lasts one paragraph. Galland omits the poetry present in the Mahdi and the Haddawy editions. In addition, Haddawy and Mahdi include dialogue whereas Galland does not.

     In Haddawy, the tailor and his wife have just spent the day out enjoying the city together when they happen upon the hunchback. However, in Galland, the tailor is working at his shop when  the hunchback comes by, so he closes up his shop and takes the hunchback home to amuse his wife.

     The hunchback is given a lengthy description by both Haddawy and Mahdi. He is wearing embroidered Egyptian-style robe and drunkenly playing the tambourine, singing poetry and making funny gestures. Galland only mentions that he is singing and playing the tabor but makes no mention of his clothes or drunken state. One interesting and strange difference between the three is the way in which the hunchback accepts the invitation and goes back to their house. In Mahdi, the hunchback responds to the invitation, “اجابهم بالسمع و الطاعه و مشى معهم الى البيت”. This phrase, common throughout the Nights, is not directly translated by Haddawy nor Galland. Haddawy translates this as, “He accepted gladly and walked with them to their home.” This “accepted gladly” preserves the meaning of the Arabic (though it loses the parallelism) while making it sound normal in English. However, Galland translates this line as, “He readily accepted the invitation; so the tailor shut up his shop and carried him home.” Besides the differences in meeting the hunchback on a stroll or from the shop, it seems strange that Galland felt that the hunchback needed to be carried and was not capable of walking on his own.

     The hunchback’s physical helplessness underscores one of the most striking results of the way that the characters are portrayed in the different editions. The descriptions of the three characters’ actions completely change the power structure among the tailor, his wife and the hunchback. In Haddawy and Mahdi, the tailor and his wife seem to work as a team – they go out together and they decide to bring the hunchback home with them. The husband is the one who gets the food and sets the table, and they all share in drinking, eating and carousing. In Galland, the husband unilaterally decides to bring the hunchback home, where his wife sets the table.

     In Haddawy and Mahdi, the tailor is responsible for the following action because he forces the hunchback to eat the large piece of fish with the bone in it that appears to kill him. However, Galland portrays this as an unfortunate accident, “unluckily the crooked gentleman swallowed a large bone, of which he died in a few minutes, notwithstanding all that the taylor and his wife could do to prevent it.” In Galland’s version, this happened despite the tailor’s actions, not as a direct result of them.

     After the hunchback dies in Mahdi and Haddawy, the husband is at a loss for what to do, and the wife spurs him to action and lays out the plan that they then carry out. In Galland, “the husband found an expedient to get rid of the corpse.”

     In Haddawy and Mahdi’s editions, the hunchback and the wife are both active players in the story with their own personalities. However, in Galland’s translation, the tailor is the one who drives all of the action (except for the accident with the fishbone) and the other two have no decision making power or agency of their own. (The hunchback has to be carried home!) It seems that in this case the man must be the one who is in charge of the good or neutral things that happen, and the rest is the cause of fate. 

Mind Your Own Business-How Haddawy and Mahdi convey themes through poetry and story

(Passage starting with “You are three…” and ending with “…the lock sealed” on page 70 in Haddawy, page 131 in Mahdi)

I read an excerpt in The Porter and the Three Young Ladies in Haddawy and Mahdi focusing on an early passage in the story where the reader first encounters the theme that secrets should be kept and curiosity only hurts situations.  Haddawy is said to be the closest translation to Mahdi’s original text, and I chose the excerpt to analyze not only the theme but also whether the poetry in Arabic and English had the same effect on this theme and the story.

Before analyzing the text, it is important to recognize that Haddawy’s version is based on Mahdi’s text.  Mahdi’s edition is based on the 14th century Syrian manuscript now in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale.  He consulted other manuscripts during the creation of his text, many of which were French, but he believed that Galland and other versions had added stories to the Nights which did not stay true to its original themes.

Haddawy’s translation is considered a reliable version of Mahdi’s text with a couple additional stories at the end of the book.  Both Mahdi and Haddawy come from Iraqi origins, which may account for the trueness of Haddawy’s translation.  Regardless, the two were remarkably similar, and I thought both conveyed the theme of keeping to oneself and the importance of minding one’s business very well.

I examined the poems first because I was initially interested in picking a passage that had poetry to compare the English and Arabic versions.  The poems in both were remarkably similar.  Mahdi’s version was written with two lines side by side (typical of Arabic poetry).  While this was altered in the English version, Haddawy did manage to keep the same rhyme scheme with the second and fourth lines rhyming just like in the Mahdi edition.  I found this impressive, especially since the theme was mostly the same as well.

While the theme was the same, I did feel that the English poetry was a little more direct about the theme it conveyed.  In fact, I felt that the theme was clearer when reading the poems than the actual story around it in Haddawy’s translation.  My first impression was that the Arabic poems were more “flowery” than the English ones, but after rereading both versions I decided it was not that simple.  The Arabic seems more embellished because the language is more complex than the English.  The verbs are picked carefully and there is repetition of words with the same root in Arabic that cannot be replicated in English while keeping the message and rhyme scheme.  Despite losing this one aspect of the poems, Haddawy also managed to keep the manager imageries the same.  In this first poem this involves the idea that secrets cannot be kept in one’s chest/breast and in the second poem he keeps the reference to the locked house and key.

I also think part of the reason I initially felt that Mahdi’s poetry was more “flowery” was because the story around it was of a similar, if not simpler, pattern.  In Haddawy’s poetry, I felt the opposite.  The themes were clearer than in the actual story.

This also may be because there was more clarification and rewording of common ideas in the second written paragraph in Mahdi’s edition.  While the first paragraph is nearly directly translated, the second paragraph includes more of a verification of the porter’s trustworthiness.  This was the moment where he had to prove he was trustworthy and would not meddle in the business of the three ladies.  The English loses some cultural references (and I failed to understand them fully) concerning a certain book he read to verify his knowledge, sanity, and wisdom.  In Haddawy’s edition it simply says that the porter “read and learned” because this reference would be lost on us.

Overall, the passage left me with the same theme by the end.  However, Haddawy relies on his poems to build the theme that curiousness is shameful while the theme is smoothly spread out across the two paragraphs and poems in Mahdi.  I am thoroughly impressed with Haddawy’s translation since he left me with the same understanding before that I had when I read Mahdi this time.

The Porter and the Three Ladies, Three Translations examined

When the class first read the story of the Porter and the Three Ladies in the Haddawy translation what struck me as most interesting was the level of detail and description given to each of the three women, to their shopping list, and to the house in which they reside.  This is all seen through the Porter’s eyes in long and elaborate descriptions.  Upon examination both the Galland translation and the Lane translation I noticed several similarities but was most interested in the large number of differences.  Introduction and development of a character is important in setting the tone and purpose of that character’s role in the plot line.  In the story of The Porter and the Three Lady’s or the story of The Three Calenders, Sons of Kings; and of the Five Ladies of Bagdad, as the story is titled by Galland, each translator’s introduction and description to the characters varies based on their own background and purpose for translating the nights.

            The Haddawy translation gives the most detailed description of the shopping scene. He elaborates on each stop the Porter and the first lady (the shopper) make.  Haddawy makes a claim of legitimacy for his translation justifiable by his Arab roots.  He recalls the stories being told to him by his mother each night during his childhood.  Growing up in Baghdad he equates the Baghdad of his youth to the one described in the Nights.  In a sense however this almost makes the setting more of a fantastical and idealized place.  Perhaps giving an explanation for the fairy tale-esq description of the market as a souk where foods from all parts of the Middle East could be sold and bought.  “ Hebron peaches, and Turkish quinces, seacoast lemons, and royal oranges, Aleppo jasmine and Damascus lilies… she places everything in the Porter’s basket and asked him to follow her” (Pg. 66, Haddawy). 

            His Baghdad roots also are portrayed in his inclusion of colloquial sayings or proverbs, such as the ‘table needing four legs to stand” and the inclusion of poems recited by the porter; this adage is referenced in the Galland text as simply the “Bagdad proverb” and the poems are removed completely from the Galland text.  Lane appears to fall in the middle of these two translators; he includes the poems recited by the Porter and elaborates on his portrayal of the women to a greater extent than Galland, whose text lacks a description, simply remarking that they were young and handsome women.  However, it is still much more baron than those by Haddawy and he makes no mention of the proverb of the table and its four legs.  It appears to me that Haddawy has made elaborations upon the original text, perhaps to create the aesthetic affect he mentions in his Introduction: to make the English reader feel the same way as the Arab reader. 

            What Galland’s translation does gain however is a more westernized or European context.  This is something both Lane and Haddawy criticized of Galland, and in part provided a purpose or a need for their own endeavors to create a translation more honest and accurate than the Galland edition.  While the three women may lack a strong depiction what they do gain are names.  The shopper is called Amine, the guard at the gate, Safie, and lastly you meet Zobede.  Secondly, Galland’s edition becomes westernized in its descriptions.  This can be most clearly seen in the description of the home of the three women.  “A spacious court encompassed with an open gallery, which had a communication with several apartments on a floor, and was extraordinarily magnificent.  There was at the farther end of the court a sofa richly adorned with a throne of amber in the middle of it, supported by four columns of ebony, enriched with diamonds and pearls of an extraordinary size, and covered with red satin…” (pg. 67, Galland). Taken out of context a reader could imagine this a narration of both the home of the three women or of an apartment in Versailles. 

            Lastly, I looked at the beginning of the Burton text to see how his translation of the story would compare to the three translators I examined.  True to Burton-form the translator, while still following a similar plot line, exaggerates wildly upon the details and includes many cheeky jokes and witticisms.  Nevertheless, however deviant of the original Arabic text Burton seems to veer, he does succeed in developing an entertaining tale.