My Opinions on Burton

Personally, I have taken a liking to Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, and not just because of his lengthy title. He is not always successful in giving Arabs credit where credit is due, but for a Victorian-era white guy, I think he’s a pretty decent translator. I think his motives are more pure than Galland and he does a much better job of providing a more authentic picture of the Nights as they were meant to be read. I think he genuinely wants to generate an interest in the Arab world among westerners and encourage them to respect and appreciate its culture.

Part of the reason he was able to produce a more authentic version than Galland was his way of getting around issues of “taste.” He published to a private club in order to avoid laws that would force him to alter or omit a large portion of the story under Victorian British rule. He prized authenticity over how many readers he could get, perhaps because he was not the first European to provide a translation and there was already a large group of people familiar with the story and eager to read his more “complete” version.

What I like most about Burton is that he did not eliminate Gallands “additions.” He considers any story told with the nights to be an important part of its evolution; whether they were part of the “original” or not. I think Burton gave us an opportunity to read a respectful and authentic text regarding the Arab world while incorporating the Western concept of the Arab world, which also plays a key role in Arab identity. His hybrid text is entertaining, easy to read AND mostly authentic, which is why it has become my favorite of all the versions we have studied.

He also has a really great screw you attitude that I tend to appreciate in my authors, but that’s beside the point.


Key Points about Burton’s Background: A Summary

  • At different times in his life, was known as: soldier, traveller, military surveyor, linguist (knowing nearly 30 languages), African explorer, anthropologist, ethnologist, pioneering sexologist, author of 50+ books, master swordsman, amateur geologist, botanist, inventor, and one of the found members/first presidents of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
  • Worked with John Payne on Payne’s edition, then later compiled his own: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night
  • Believed “an unexpurgated translation [of the Nights] should be as literal as possible”
  • Published 16 volumes of the Nights
  • In addition to the Nights, also published the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana
  • He believed a heavily annotated translation “might act as a kind of de facto anthropological encyclopedia for English-speaking Europeans on Muslim manners” (177)
    • His goal was to write as close to how an Arab might write in English as possible
  • Considered a great translator in keeping so much old and new content, but a poor one in his use of archaic language and in possibly plagiarizing from other Nights translators.

Why I like Burton’s Translation

What I like about Burton’s Translation is that it seems to convey the literal meaning of the text while also displaying the poetic imagery.  He tries to portray culture more than anything and to do this it seems that he incorporates both the literal meaning of words as well as the what the culture behind the words mean.

As his title says “a plain and literal translation” I think this is true for the most part as he removes unnecessary stories but still keeps the references to high culture.  To Burton, the most important thing seen here is what is considered “real” translation.  Though I disagree that the Mamluk Cairo aspects of culture are the exact reference for many of the tales, I do think he makes a genuine effort to understand the culture.

Burton’s translation as it relates to the Western experience of the Arabian Nights is also one of the best understandings of Orientalism.  The Haddawi and Lang translation although they are also good, do not show the orientalist understanding of the Arabian Nights.  When I first think the Western experience with Arabian nights I think of the Western fascination with the magical elements of the story and the hyper-sexualized Shahrazade.  With Burton’s translation there is quite a bit of this imagery and by having a somewhat literal translation with this Orientalist views it makes the 1001 Nights more imaginative in Western eyes.  Burton definitely emphasizes the sex, in order to sell more copies, but mainly to emphasize the otherness of the story.

Problems with Lane

Among my biggest problems with Lane’s translation of 1001 Nights is the fact that he takes this work of literature to be an ethnographic text. Not only does he make his Orientalist approach clear in his extensive preface, but also throughout his many notes. The problems with this approach are clear: Lane’s interpretation of the work is exceedingly Orientalist. He reduces the Arabian Nights to a mirror for Arab culture. The richness and complexities of the transcultural text are dismissed as aspects of the text that are un-Arab are taken to be  the result of troubling translations. Lane’s verbose notes reveal his ethnographic Orientalist approach as he writes substantially on aspects of the Arab culture within the context of the work.

In addition to assuming that 1001 Nights is an ethnographic text, Lane interprets the work to be specifically informative about Arab culture. Lane ignores claims to authorship from Persia and India and disavows Galland’s translation because for Lane, the Arabian Nights are informative only about the Middle East. His Orientalist approach, while on some level privileges the Arab culture for giving it an authentic claim to the Nights, is paradoxical because it also reduces both the Arab culture to an Orientalist subject for study and the Nights as a whole by ignoring the cultural diversity within the text.

Why I Hate Translating Stuff

This isn’t a rant.  Ok, it actually might be.

I really like analyzing translated literature.  It’s so interesting to see just how different certain iterations of the same text are from others.  And comparing them to one another reveals some cool stuff.  Whether it’s the translator modifying the text for their audience, trying to be as linguistically or culturally accurate as possible, or doing whatever the hell they want because they can, I really like tracking every modification to the original text.

But actually doing the translating MYSELF is something I can’t stand.  I don’t know how Galland did it.  Not sure how Lane did it either.  Actually, he was way too proud of assimilating himself into Arab culture that he couldn’t not do it.  Jokes aside, being a translator (especially for a huge work like the Nights) is kind of a big deal.  The text is in your hands to shape, in whatever method you choose to do.  And that’s why I hate it.  I’m literally cringing thinking about having to translate Japanese and adequately choosing the right words for translation while simultaneously thinking about the cultural implications, how to romanize words, or how I would structure the overall text to convey its exact meaning…It’s so tough for me because there are so many factors to consider!  And once you stick with one thing, you have to follow through.

As we’ve been talking about in class, all of the translators have their own ways of describing things, so I feel like every version has a different feeling to it.  Honestly, I liked Galland better than Haddawy.  Please don’t shoot me.  I like Haddawy because of the humor and style.  Very honest and enjoyable.  But I like Galland’s descriptions and language because it gives the text a certain feeling.  Not sure how to describe it, but I like the aura surrounding Galland’s words more than anyone else’s.  And after reading Lane’s story (Jullanar), I realized how much I REALLY REALLY appreciate quotation marks…

It’s a completely different experience to read a text in its original language, of course.  But not everyone is multilingual, or understands the culture or slang in a given text.  That’s why it’s incredibly important to translate stuff so that we can spread knowledge.  But that’s why we have classes like ours, where we actually study different versions of the same text and even look at some of the original.

Formed in Translation

As we begin to focus more on translations as a literary practice, its importance really takes hold. Translation is by definition editorializing – one person decides what to look for and what to omit. Every translator is, in a way, an original author, some more than others. Even those striving for “authenticity” like Burton and Lane have to make cuts; for example, Lane translating poetry for content over form. Is not the form of the poem integral to its content? Is it not the most “authentic” thing about it?

Then there is the issue of the translation directly from the French. Even though most of the stories emerge from the same manuscript that Haddaway used (which we viewed for most of the course as unedited and without external narrative), if an English translator (such as the Grub Street one[s]) were to use that as an uninterpolated manuscript it would still be wrong because it is based on the French literary form. Rhymed prose and the cognate accusatory, for example, while integral to the Nights, are removed because they sound awkward in other languages. It is a catch 22: one part must be sacrificed in order to preserve the other. Perhaps it is more of a Sophie’s choice: how can a translator choose one?

Lane’s Translation of The Arabian Nights

I admit, of all the translations, I found Lane most difficult to read for a number a reasons. To begin, I read his introduction first, so I had a bad taste in my mouth when I approached his work because I felt that he misunderstood the purpose of the Nights. I initially thought that Lane’s aim to teach Westerners about Arab culture (or how he perceived it) was misguided because the Nights was created to entertain. In addition, I found most of the introduction incredibly pretentious and sometimes tedious.

Therefore, I read “The Story of Jullanar of the Sea” with a less than open mind, which I now regret. I wrote off his complex word choice as just part of his snobbery. However, through our class discussion, I began to have a soft spot for Lane. Mainly, when I compared his work to that of Galland’s. In class, we discussed the fact that for many centuries the West fetishized the Middle East as a fantastical and barbaric place. Galland wrote in his dedication that he translated the Nights with diversion in mind. As a result of Galland’s commercial intensions for translating the Nights, he can sometimes fall into the Western trap of fetishizing the East.

I now feel that in translating the Nights, Lane made a honest attempt in understanding Arab culture. Even though the results are sometimes far from perfect, the reader can tell he tried to immerse himself in many aspects of the Middle East, even some of the less sexy parts, such as the language and Islam. I began to appreciate that in his introduction, while he did so pompously, he did alert the reader to the fact he tried to translate the Arabic as accurately as the language would allow. With this in mind, I began to lighten up and analyze Lane in the context of when he wrote his translation. This was a time, before the globalized world, when little information about the East was available to Westerners. Therefore, I commend Lane for making his readers know that the culture is inseparable from these wildly entertaining stories.