Review: The Thousand and One Nights (Madrus & Mathers)

The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. Volume 1The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. Volume 1
by J. C. Mardrus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (Vol. 1) / 978-0415045391

I'm a bit of an "Thousand Nights" enthusiast -- I enjoy the stories immensely and I have four separate translations in my personal library. Several friends have asked me to discuss the differences between the editions, so I thought I'd present a four-way comparison and then talk about which version is best for which audience.

For the purposes of the four-way comparison, I will draw text from the opening tale of the two kingly brothers in order to highlight how each popular version handles "adult" content and racial content.

-- The Tale of King Shahryar and of his Brother, King Shahzaman --
Now there were in the King's palace certain windows that looked on to the garden, and, as King Shahzaman leaned there and looked out, the door of the palace opened and twenty women slaves with twenty men slaves came from it; and the wife of the King, his brother, was among them and walked there in all her bright beauty. When they came to the pool of a fountain they all undressed and mingled one with another. Suddenly, on the King's wife crying: 'O Masud! Ya Masud!', a gigantic negro ran towards her, embraced her, and, turning her upon her back, enjoyed her. At this signal, all the other men slaves did the same with the women and they continued thus a long while, not ceasing their kisses and embraces and goings in and the like until the approach of dawn.
-- Madrus & Mathers edition

-- The Tale of King Shahriar and of his Brother, King Shahzenan --
One day, Shahriar had started on a great hunting match, about two days' journey from his capital; but Shahzenan, pleading ill health, was left behind. He shut himself up in his apartment, and sat down at a window that looked into the garden. Suddenly a secret gate of the palace opened, and there came out of it twenty women, in the midst of whom walked the Sultaness. The persons who accompanied the Sultaness threw off their veils and long robes, and Shahzenan was greatly surprised when he saw that ten of them were black slaves, each of whom chose a female companion. The Sultaness clapped her hands, and called: "Masoud, Masoud!" and immediately a black came running to her; and they all remained conversing familiarly together.
-- Muhsin al-Musawi edition

-- The Tale of King Schahriar and of his Brother, King Schahzeman --
Now the Sultan Schahriar had a wife whom he loved more than all the world, and his greatest happiness was to surround her with splendour, and to give her the finest dresses and the most beautiful jewels. It was therefore with the deepest shame and sorrow that he accidentally discovered, after several years, that she had deceived him completely, and her whole conduct turned out to have been so bad, that he felt himself obliged to carry out the law of the land, and order the grand-vizir to put her to death.
-- Lang edition

-- The Tale of King Shahryar and of his Brother, King Shah Zaman --
Thereupon Shah Zaman drew back from the window, but he kept the bevy in sight espying them from a place whence he could not be espied. They walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain amiddlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, "Here to me, O my lord Saeed!" and then sprang with a drop leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her.
-- Burton edition


For my money, the superior volume by far is the Madrus & Mathers edition. The editor and translator have deliberately worked the translation to be as readable to the English eye as possible, even making judicious choices about where to refrain from using diacritical points (single quote sound points, as in 'ain) in order to ease the reading experience. They've made a concerted effort to retain the adult content without being lewd, the racial content without descending into offensive caricature, the poetic content without overwhelming the reader, and the entire content without condensing the text and losing material. The Madrus & Mathers editions comprise four giant volumes, but the casual enthusiast will be more than satisfied with just volume one, and with over 600 pages of stories in the electronic edition, the reader will have plenty of reading material available.

For children, however, the superior volume is probably the Muhsin al-Musawi edition. This edition is condensed, but the editing was done with great care to maintain story structure and content. The adult content has been toned down considerably, the racial content has been handled tactfully, the extra songs and poems have been almost entirely removed, and there are interesting and attractive pictures in the electronic edition. My biggest complain here is that the adult content has been excised to a degree that almost brings unfortunate implications: when adultery is characterized as "conversing", the angry and jilted husband seems to be seriously over-reacting. Still, if you want a sanitized version of the tales, the al-Musawi edition is almost certainly the way to go.

I do not recommend the Lang edition. Lang's fairy tale collections, such as the color fairy tale books, are usually a delight, but his Arabian Nights edition is thin on content and heavily paraphrased. The stories are gutted to remove the adult content and shorten the tale length for children, but in many cases the changes are not carefully glossed over, and huge plot holes and unresolved threads are left dangling. I've never met a Lang reader who didn't ask me what was going on in one tale or other because the translation is so poorly rendered.

Neither do I recommend the Burton version. If anything, the Burton version has the exact opposite problems as the Lang version: Burton's edition lengthens the stories with extensively lewd descriptions and offensive racial imagery. The edition was also rendered in the 1800s, and the language within has not aged well -- there are all lot of "forsooth"s and "verily"s that bog down the reading. If you're interested in a historical analysis of how these tales have been rendered over the years, by all means become familiar with the Burton version, but if you're just looking for light bedtime reading, give the Burton edition a pass.

I hope that this comparison will be helpful. This particular listing here is for the Madrus & Mathers edition which I definitely recommend for adult readers.

~ Ana Mardoll


Patrick Knipe said...

Ooh, I have the Madrus & Mathers edition! I think I was three fourths of the way through the first volume before something distracted me and threw me off. Beautiful big leather books they are, too.

Redwood Rhiadra said...

I haven't read the Burton translation of 1001 Nights, but I have read his "The Book of the Sword". And my conclusion from that is that the man was deeply, deeply racist, even more so than was normal for his time, I think. His sneering tone towards other cultures is so bad that parts of the book are almost unreadable.

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