Thoughts on adaptations

I think what is most interesting about this final unit is that what we are working with are self proclaimed adaptations, although I feel like we crossed this line far before the translator’s debate. Even though I was on Galland’s team (legal council?) I think once we forayed into the European translations via his work, we truly stepped into the adaptive realm. As the orphan tales are only tangentially related to based stories, they are basically inspired by rather than a part of the collection; “Ali Baba” is to “The Porter” what Disney’s Aladdin is to The Thief of Baghdad. The only difference is a claim to authenticity which, while giving it some legitimacy also opens it up to criticism it cannot support. While an adaptation of a different genre (music, drama, film, etc) cannot claim that same legitimacy, it does allow it an artistic freedom and a licence to augment to the creator’s content. Does it make it faithful? Not in almost any of the cases we were presented with, yet it does allow an artistic expression that does not need to be justified: the audience expects a collage of borrowed, old and new. However, in terms of actual integrity, Galland and Rimsky-Korsakov are working on almost identical planes.

Furthermore, I think back to the first assignment (and blogpost!) of the semester which was, of course, about adaptations, which brings the course into a full circle. Yet the reason that was the introductory question is because most people’s familiarity with the nights comes from some sort of adaptation: I remember myself (and others) saying that we were familiar with some sort of adaptation, but would like to read the original. Obviously, as we soon learned, that is a complicated and almost impossible wish, which only became more and more convoluted as translations melted into adaptations, as aforementioned with Galland, but also very much with Burton and Lane. Then of course comes the question of the new originals and the question “poisonous fruits” and how they are to be dealt with. Like it or not, as Haddaway himself admits, the most famous tales are those “fruits”, orphan tales, fallacies or adaptations that were tacked on to please audiences. Perhaps they are most ubiquitous because they were created for that very purpose; perhaps because they came out of deep study and translation of so many Nights tales.

In seeing how these adaptations came into the norm, it is also interesting seeing them augment again and again. The cruelly elegant transformation from Sabu to Abu, which is at once a nod and an insult: once a headliner, now a monkey. It is also interesting to see how much Robin Williams’ character was based on his counterpart in Thief, even in appearance: the old movie becomes the new original, a basis for the new movie, which serves as an introduction to the world of the Nights for an unbelievably vast audience. Also, in doing some research about Sabu, the film he was discovered for, Elephant Boy, is based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling called “Toomai of the Elephants” – which is a British man’s mythologization of India; the story itself was published in The Jungle Book collection which underwent a similar treatment to Aladdin via Disney.


WLL Culture Pass[es]

Event 1:

A few months ago I went to see the Threepenny Opera at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It’s a “play with songs” based on Brecht’s opera, which is already an adaptation of a German text called “The Beggar’s Opera”. It was re-translated by playwright Simon Stephens and directed by Rupert Norris. The National Theatre was founded by Laurence Olivier and is a prominent fixture in London’s theater scene, which is why, I presume, they were able to curate such a visually stunning production. Even though they had a lot of “DIY-esque”, meta-theatrical qualities (such as putting a small stage on the stage for the opening, expositionary number), everything appeared carefully selected, and, as the play progressed grander and grander (they dropped a giant tapestry with St. George’s Cross on it towards the end). I personally was not familiar with any iteration of the story so it was quite easy to get lost in it, however, the production volume and value made the feel of the piece very clear (albeit somewhat superimposed). I think it was similar to modern Shakespeare productions, where the audience is not expected to understand the words but the meaning (Rory Kinnear, who played Macheath and James D’Arcy who played Tiger were both familiar to me from various Shakespeare productions). However, the contemporary diction of Stephens’ adaptation made the feel of the piece seem at odds with the dialogue; the purposeful anachronism of modern word vs period dress (this production was set in 1920’s London) was overshadowed by the director’s intention of pointing out how much now (politically, socially) is exactly like then. Which, to be fair, in many ways it is but it would have been equally clear without being overexposed.
It was, however, very funny and well executed, as well as, as I said before, really beautiful. They had a very and truly diverse cast which included not only actors of color but also of various ages and abilities. My favorite moment was when, after Macheath mocked one of his henchmen by imitating the actor’s cerebral palsy, the henchmen got back at him by refusing to help him out of a life threatening bind.
I think that a part of the reason that I had a hard time fully liking the piece, which is by all accounts well done, is that the production was very Anglocentric (cf. the giant St George flag) which is expected from London’s NATIONAL, but it was very raw and close to home not only in a post-Brexit, but also in a (then) pre-election America.

Event 2:
On Sunday the 13th I went to see some shorts in the Boston Turkish Festival’s Documentary & Short Film competition. I did not know until they showed an informational documentary after the shorts that these films were made by high school and university students in Turkey. The prize was a scholarship to study film at a program in one of the SUNY schools. I found that this documentary was actually most revealing, because it showed not only the process of selecting the competitors but them filming as well as interviews with them where they got quite open about their opinions on their country and the world. It was interesting to see how they got to the conclusion of making that particular short, showcasing that part of their country.
The movies were very different, some more interpretive than others – such as Sarı Buzdolabı (The Yellow Fridge) which featured a dream sequence. The Spider’s Web (Une toile d’arraignée) took place entirely in France, but was about a Turkish family (and how they defined their identity in emigration).
My personal favorite short was Tuesday (Sali), directed by Ziya Demirel. It is about a high school girl’s day, from walking to the bus stop to walking from it after school. The climax of the movie was towards the end, when she is on the crowded bus home and an old man asks to lean on her so he does not fall. She initially agrees, but the scene is shot through the mass of people on the bus so it’s unclear what is actually happening, but she finally gets very uncomfortable and asks him to let go of her. There is immediate and full scale upheaval in the crowded, contained space of the bus that only stops once the driver lets her slip out by letting her off at a traffic light. She then walks up the street she walked down in the opening sequence of the film and, in her anger, bangs on the hood of a man sleeping in his car (when she was there previously, she only made a face at him). The film cuts after he chases her around the car and she finally runs away. It was a really powerful symbol of a loss of innocence, as well as a society where people often assume women are expected to be and/or be treated a certain way and where they clearly are not (most of the people on  the bus jump to her defense, she plays basketball with the boys in gym class). Overall I really liked the strong portrayal of women in the story (the mom in The Yellow Fridge, although presented totally differently, is also a powerful example). Partially, as I learned in the documentary, is because they chose many female students to write, direct and produce these shorts, and they all spoke in their interviews about how, although they were passionate about film making, this is the first opportunity they actually got to do it (and that is far from being exclusive to Turkey).
It was a really interesting few hours and I know that there are many more events as a part of the Boston Turkish Festival so I would really recommend attending one.



Debate Thoughts

Like Alex and Greta, I agree that the debate was very thought provoking, but I don’t think that it really changed my mind at all. I think it definitely helped me appreciate the artistry of subtle adaptation, though, as well as its difference from translation. This was a point brought up by the Haddaway group, in their claim that their translation was the only one that succeeded in failing nostalgia, and that the other two translators created good adaptations instead. In a way, I have to agree – they are adaptations, and even, in a way, claim to be so as both Burton and Galland speak of familiarizing their audience with the “Oriental” culture.

However, even the Mahdi manuscript is an adaptation of Sanskrit stories to fit the Iraqi culture. I think the different then lies in what the translator considers to be the core of the story. While the Europeans are both looking for culture, Mahdi (and subsequently, Haddaway) is looking for storytelling. That being said, I do stand by the claim that Burton and Galland translated for entertainment (moreso the latter), but their footnotes and “avertissments” prove a strong need to educate the reader about this specific location (which they somewhat disagree on). Perhaps this is why “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” are so universal – because Galland was making them up, he is free of the burden of education and can therefore create a story that is in the spirit of The Nights.

I am still not sure if their ubiquity reconciles with rest of the collection’s reputation, as well as if, even though he is the best at the required failing, Haddaway is the best translator.  Maybe because of the modern idea of foreign works as ambassadors, or maybe because he is, with exception, often rather dry. But mostly because of something else brought up during the debate. Merritt said that Haddaway’s translation is best for “lit students in the contemporary” which is true: it is straightforward and relevant. Yet the preface of all three versions clearly states that this is not a work for students, but for nobility, from Rashid to Louis to Victoria. So maybe the debate could not change our minds because we are simply not fit to judge a work not meant for us.

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?

The Importance of Narration

After reading the Molan article generally our class discussion of Sinbad, I am stuck on the concept of narrator vs. character. This is amplified by an idea brought up in my Shakespeare course, where the professor often poses the question of whether we can attribute a speech to a character or to Shakespeare himself. This question is posed in the same “ironic discrepancy” context: the character is often foolish, but the words – out of the character’s context – are beautiful and actually insightful. In the case of Sinbad, this is much more complicated because it has no traceable author. Not only are the Nights not in possession of a single author, but Sinbad was actually swallowed into them. However, it fits into the frame perfectly (possibly due to adjustments made at some point in its journey).

Also thinking about Harrison and Ameen’s presentation, I found it helpful to qualify Sinbad as a transnational hero just as Scheherazade is a transnational feminist. And perhaps that, too, is purposeful; maybe he was swallowed in to point out the disparity between them.

I am beginning to, just in general, notice diction choices that work very well if I actively think of Scheherazade saying them to Shaharyar, especially in my rereading for the paper. As we also talked about a few classes ago, the parallels to the frame become more obvious as the tales progress, which as an English major is almost impossible for me to fathom without having a single author to point to.

Perception, Deception and Persephone

I was really fascinated by the idea of Persephone factoring into “The Porter”. This is a collection that famously touched and inspired every part of seemingly every culture (as evidenced by the video we watched at the beginning of class on Wednesday) and yet, the idea that this collection ties to the ancient Greek myths truly threw me for a loop. It is, however, completely unsurprising, as the only kind of stories that are as ubiquitous as the Nights are Greek myths and Bible stories, and so the idea that the two should intersect and overlap really is not that radical. There are tales that are proper, or rather, moralistic in Greek stories such as The Odyssey but there are also bawdy and comic tales, just like in the Nights. That is also true of every culture, where there are “high” and “low” stories, the only difference is that we, as a “Western” society, expect certain societies to retain either only high or only low tales.
With the racist and deeply Islamophobic debate currently dominating the media, it appears as though many people expect Muslim cultures to be painfully proper: ie, a woman MUST wear hijab, she MUST not interact with men, she MUST read the Quran, etc.  There is a twisted idea of adab indoctrinated upon American (and European) society. On the flipside, there are those who view the bawdy parts of the tales as examples of a different kind of homogenized storytelling.

On Rhetoric

Thinking about, as we have from the first day of class, the path of the Nights and where they traveled to (and through) naturally intersected with the discussion about the preservation of form over (some) content. Because of the way that we view authorship and copyright today, the idea of content without any single concrete source can be confusing, at least for me. We often read for authorial intention, and by having admitted to no author – well, who am I supposed to read for then? Similarly to a passage paper dissecting Shakespeare, where I instinctively go for capitalization and punctuation as capital-C Clues, in trying to critically think about the Nights I often look for the same Clues, yet there is no information at all about who is behind this (so while I must force myself to disregard a comma, I can always comfort myself by knowing that at least a percentage of the text was written by the son of a glovemaker in Stratford, etc).

On the other hand, there is consistency across different versions of the Nights – that is what makes them distinct. And that distinction must come from the way the original storytellers, whoever they may be, have intended for their stories to be told. Rhetoric is very similar to spoken tone; I recently had a professor say that there is no tone in a work until it is spoken, but once it is spoken, it cannot exist without tone. The importance of rhetoric is very much heightened if we read in terms of the frame story. As discussed in class, the barber is placed and created as some sort of Scheherazade parallel; therefore it is Scheherazade’s own rhetoric (if the King’s listening equates to reading) and her guidance toward understanding  that what he is doing is wrong.