“One Thousand and One Nights” (the literal translation of the original Arabic title: Alf Laylah wa Laylah), or “The Arabian Nights” as Richard Burton preferred to designate them in his 1885 translation, are tales narrated by the world-famous character Shahrazad to her husband Shahryar to prevent her death. Incensed by the betrayal of his unfaithful wife whom he found sleeping with a black slave, the Sasanian king Shahryar decided to take vengeance against all womankind by marrying a woman every single night and beheading her the following morning.
For three years, Shahryar married hundreds of virgin wives, deflowered them, and then executed them so they would not have the opportunity to cheat on him. He continued doing this until almost no girls were left in the kingdom except Shahrazad and her younger sister Dunyazad, who were the daughters of one of Shahryar’s closest viziers.
Being a highly intelligent and well-educated young woman, Shahrazad accepted marrying Shahryar to emancipate him from the shackles of his traumatic and misogynistic practice of feminicide, and to spare other women from his retaliatory wrath and blind-revenge. Shahrazad was scholarly informed about the histories of the neighboring and distant kingdoms, their kings’ biographies, their poets, wars, victories, and defeats. Despite her young age, she read a thousand books that she preciously kept in her house. This broad knowledge together with her boundless imagination and storytelling skills would be her only defense after consenting to the perilous marriage. When her father tried to dissuade her, she said: “For God’s sake, dear Father, let me marry this king. I will either survive or be a sacrifice for Muslim girls and a reason for their salvation.”
On the night of her suicidal wedding, Shahrazad begged Shahryar for her sister’s company as her last wish. Right before her execution, Dunyazad requested King Shahryar to let Shahrazad tell her one last tale before her death, and here started Shahrazad’s clever scheme to liberate Shahryar from his engrossing feelings of rage and spare the women in the empire his revenge.
The story Shahrazad started narrating was so captivating and spellbinding that the king kept listening until dawn. Yet, Shahrazad had to cleverly stop the story on a tantalizing turn, promising to finish it the next night. Enthralled by the events of the tale, Shahryar granted Shahrazad one more night to finish her story. As she ended her first tale, Shahrazad began another one just to end it on a captivating twist again and continued doing this every night for a thousand and one nights, until Shahryar fell for her and recognized the injustices he perpetrated against women. Eventually, Shahrazad fulfilled her plan and saved both Shahryar and her fellow women.
Despite the popularity of some tales, less than a quarter of the 550 tales in the Arabic versions and their Western translations have made it to popularity.
The stories of “One Thousand and One Nights” include romances, fairy tales, legends, parables, scary fables, anecdotes, and exotic adventures in both the real and the imaginary worlds. Despite the popularity of some tales like “Aladdin and His Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and “Sindbad the Sailor” – which became rooted in Western folklore and culture, less than a quarter of the 550 tales in the Arabic versions and their Western translations have made it to popularity. This is because they are unique to the medieval Arab society and its distinctive traditions.
Most of the tales that have enjoyed popularity in the West are lighthearted and pleasing to the younger generation, combining humor, adventure, fantasy, exotic settings, and other literary techniques to evoke suspense and drama. Some other less popular tales, however, are nightmarish and hair-raising, featuring otherworldly beings and supernatural creatures in direct encounters with humans. “The Prince and the Ogress,” “The Trader and the Jinn,” “A Night in a Cemetery,” “The Fisherman and the Jinni,” “ The City of Brass,” and “Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad” are phantasmagorical tales in which horror, hideous morbidity, and grotesque events are dominant themes. Many such scary tales inspired modern masters of horror fiction, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft amongst them.
The tales of “One Thousand and One Nights” were incorporated into the European literary scene and later into world literature following their first translation, which appeared in Paris in 12 volumes between 1704-1717, by the French translator Antoine Galland. Subsequently, Galland’s edition, “Mille et Une Nuits,” became the basis for further translations into other European languages during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
This included Edward William Lane’s English translation in 1838-1840, Maximilian Habicht’s German translation in 1825, and Pedro Pedraza’s Spanish edition, which was published in 1934. The rapidly growing interest in the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights” throughout the world inspired the emergence of different literary, musical, cinematic, and artistic adaptations of the stories, ranging from children’s literature to pornography and iconography. In her book “How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream,” American historian and cultural critic Susan Nance goes even further to claim that “the leisure, abundance, and contentment” which are characteristic of “The Arabian Nights” were the same characteristics used to define the American Dream and the capitalist system.
American historian Susan Nance claims that “the leisure, abundance, and contentment” of “The Arabian Nights” were the same characteristics used to define the American Dream.
In recent years, especially after the publication of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and the emergence of a new field of study called postcolonialism, many critics began to approach the translation and the reception of “One Thousand and One Nights” through the prism of Said’s conceptual framework. Said defines Orientalism as the edifice of Western scholarship about the Orient that is fraught with historical, cultural, racial, and sexual fallacies and falsifications.
The gist of Said’s theory of Orientalism is that Western scholarship about the East was produced within a specific framework of master-slave power relations, and, thus, any claim of objectivity or authenticity remains far from veracity. Western scholarship about the Orient – of which translation is an essential part – is, therefore, based “on power and not really on disinterested objectivity,” Said argues. Moreover, most of the European translations of the “Nights” are lacking sound philological foundations in the sense that the translators only knew the Orient superficially and most of the translations were based not on the original Arabic manuscript but on Galland’s “Mille et Une Nuits,” thus doubly alienating the source text.
Deploying Said’s theory of Orientalism, the tales were not translated but rather appropriated and domesticated to transmit a certain knowledge about the Orient; a knowledge that lives up to the expectations of 18th and 19th century European audiences and aligns with the mainstream conception of the Orient, which was influenced and shaped by colonial ideology. According to postcolonial translation theorists, the traditional idea that translation serves as a medium for cross-cultural communication is not entirely valid. A double-edged weapon, translation can also be a means for affirming cultural stereotypes and consolidating prejudices against cultural alterity. With this criticism in mind, one might ask: Do Western translations of “One Thousand and One Nights” reflect the real Orient?
Deploying Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, the tales were not translated but rather appropriated and domesticated to transmit a certain knowledge about the Orient.
The act of translation is by nature an act of reinscribing and rewriting the source text in the target language. This implies that any claim of fidelity to the source text is invalid because the translated text inevitably undergoes different shifts at the levels of meaning and explicitness. Many of these shifts are attributable to the well-known differences between linguistic systems, but most importantly to “the particular choices made by a specific translator, choices that indicate a lack of awareness on the translator’s part of the SL [source language] text’s meaning potential.” Accordingly, the meaning inherent to the source text will either be grasped differently or cloaked in subjectivity and ideology. This explains the various English editions we have today of “One Thousand and One Nights.” Each translator ostensibly claims authenticity but ends up reinventing an edition that is distinct from others.
The tales of “One Thousand and One Nights” in the imagination of Western readership, therefore, moved from being mere medieval Oriental fantasy to a genuine and faithful representation of the Orient and the Orientals. The racial and cultural stereotypes promoted visibly and insidiously by the different European translations of “One Thousand and One Nights,” and by other Orientalist representational forms, are now rooted in Western collective imagination.
The development of the tales’ illustrations and iconography in the late 18th century further consolidated Western stereotypes about the Orient, as they almost always featured images and scenes of harems, slave markets, desert landscapes, odalisques and concubines, bathhouses and palaces, and other themes related to violence and sensuality. The blatant and unscrupulous Western military and political intervention in the matters of the Orient even today finds its roots in that centuries-long perception of the Orient as being timeless, inferior, and backward; and, thus, in need of the intervention of the civilized Western subject.
Considering their historical, aesthetic, ethnographic, and cultural value away from the conflicting discourses they have been subjected to, the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights” have inspired and entertained not only vengeful Shahryar but also generations of readers across the globe and served as cultural bridges between the East and the West.
 Translation from an old Arabic version of One Thousand and One Nights is the author’s.
 Susan Nance, How The Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), p.2.
 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 148.
 Blum Kulka, “Shifts of Cohesion and Coherence” in Translation Studies Reader, eds. Lawrence Venuti and Mona Baker (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 309.