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Book Review: The Arabian Nights — New Translation by Malcolm & Ursula Lyons (Deluxe Edition, Penguin)

The All New Penguin Deluxe Box Set Edition of The Arabian Nights

The profoundly epic and delightfully whimsical Arabian Nights is not merely a book to be read; it’s a world to be experienced. There is simply no emotion that it doesn’t express; there is hardly any subject that it doesn’t touch. Love, lust, politics, art, war and peace… virtually everything is narrated in the pages of 1001 nights.

Now it’s time to say a few words about the translation issue.


Sir Richard Burton’s Edition

Burton’s translation of Arabian Nights was written in bizarre English. Critics also accused it of being imperialistic and racist in flavor. To these you need to add odd Victorian slangs. The result was archaic text, which made reading a nightmarish experience and eventually lead to the decline in popularity of Arabian Nights in the West.

Mardrus-Mathers translation — Joseph Charles Mardrus, an Egyptian-French Doctor, took extreme liberties while translating 1001 Nights into French. He added a great deal of “naughty” elements to the stories and even invented new stories on numerous occasions. Mardrus managed to deliver a charming book, which critics still called pure “hoax”. E.P Mathers translated the French text into English with surprising dexterity. His clean, crisp prose and command on the language made this edition popular and has kept it in print even after eighty years. That’s quite something considering the fact that a large part of the book is not true Arabian Nights and is dangerously close to porn.

Mardrus-Mathers’s Edition

Malcolm & Ursula Lyons’ (both first rate academics) version of Arabian Nights is probably the best translation of the stories till date. It’s beautifully simple, clear and idiomatic. This Penguin edition is neither too prudish nor sleazy. It’s based on Calcutta II — the Arabian edition printed in India in early 19th century. This has to be the most beautiful 1001 Nights book — hardcover, elegantly designed with fine paper quality. It weighs on your wallet, but it’s worth every penny.

Reading the entire book (3 volumes) is quite a feat, but that shouldn’t be an issue. If a Sidney Sheldon novel is a 4 minute pop, then 1001 Nights is a half an hour symphony. Hey bookworms, just close your eyes and imagine Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin and the sultry oriental women of medieval ages. Honestly, aren’t you getting excited?

An Artist's impression of Scheherazade — a legendary Persian queen and the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights.

An Artist’s Impression of Scheherazade — A legendary Persian Queen and the Storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Arabian Nights — New Translation by Malcolm & Ursula Lyons (Deluxe Edition, Penguin)

  1. I have to say I was excited at the prospect of a new translation for Arabian Nights, but I have to disagree with this article’s pronouncement that the Lyon’s translation is the best. I do not doubt for a moment that it is the most literally accurate, but the diction and register is dreadfully stiff and inappropriately clinical at times – nothing like the fairy tale genre it should be. Lyons puts in words like ‘semi-paralysed’ and ‘erection’, ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ instead of the far more apt equivalent colloquial, non-technical words employed by Madrus and Mathers. Burton is far more poetic than the rigid Lyons, but is itself idiosyncratic, and now almost unreadably archaic. Its is perfectly true that Madrus embellished and replaced dull stories with more exciting (and as it turns out – older ones, also from Asia) but then there is no one version of the Nights – they’re a complex palimpsest of multiple authors, cultures and eras, so you could argue that Madrus’ version is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the thing. In any case, as Borges and numerous others have agreed, the Madrus (of which Mathers is a superb translation) is in itself a highly skillful accomplishment, and highly readable – more than I can say of the Lyons translation!

    • I agree that Mardrus-Mathers translation is indeed a skillful accomplishment, and it might be too good to resist if you consider Arabian Nights as a simple adventure tale. However, there can be little doubt that Malcolm & Ursula Lyons’ work is more scholarly.

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