[DRAFT]: Lost in Translation // Analysis of Habegger-Conti’s “‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights”

There is no doubt that The Arabian Nights is one of the most well known works of literature in the world. From the swashbuckling adventures of Sinbad in DreamWorks’ Sinbad (2003) to the hearty ballad that opens Disney’s Aladdin (1992), the exotic and mysterious East continues to fascinate the Western world. But how did these ancient tales travel from the Middle East to those of European descent? The answer lies in translations. From the time of The Nights’ discovery, Europeans have craved reading about the alluring East, and translations allowed them to do so. However, in ‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights by Jena Habegger-Conti, she asserts that translations cannot duplicate the original text. Regardless of a translator’s intentions, translations of The Arabian Nights will continue to be flawed, and their omissions and modifications further Orientalist thought.

In the early 1700s, Antoine Galland became the first to translate the stories for Europe. His publication both popularized and exoticized the East. In his eagerness and determination to “compile” all 1001 tales, Galland tweaked the stories of The Nights considerably – even inventing his own. Regardless of their origin, it is curious that “many of these invented tales are those most famous to Western audiences.”[1] This suggests the easily satisfied nature of the European audience in their search of the mysterious and romanticized Middle East. Galland’s notion of a novel as a “symbolic form by which readers could comprehend the Orient”[2] suggests that readers can experience everything the East has to offer simply by reading his book. By adding a conclusion, claiming a single source, altering the style, and adding night breaks, he attempted to Westernize The Nights, putting them into a “coherent, unified, original, authoritative book.”[3] By erasing the culture and ambiguity behind the stories, Galland botched the work, paving the road for many future translators.

Translators tailing Galland either continued to glamorize the “Oriental” nature of the Middle East or attempted to break the stereotypes by translating the most original and authentic Arabic written record of The Nights. In this postcolonial “attempt to de-colonise the Nights” and “further Arab nationalism,” Muhsin Mahdi and Husain Haddawy attempted to “reclaim [the stories] for Arabs.”[4] By using a manuscript of The Nights deemed as both authentic and uncorrupted, Mahdi tried to create a genuine translation of The Arabian Nights. However, Mahdi noticed that his stories “[had] been strung together with some care rather than merely stacked the one next to the other”[5] as they have been written and rewritten in a uniform style. Thus, he is also guilty of attempting to string together a coherent and uniform version of the tales. Haddawy is also at fault for his praise of the Syrian manuscript and belittling of the Egyptian branch, showing an Enlightenmentist attitude towards the transcultural and transnational; Haddawy claims an authority on The Nights because he possesses “an insider’s knowledge of both hemispheres.”[6] While Mahdi and Haddawy felt at liberty to bash Galland because he abridged and omitted as he pleased, many scholars of the text also agree that Mahdi and Haddawy are at fault as well. By pondering the transmission of the tales from India to Egypt to Paris and the existence of a possible author, Mahdi reinforces his critics’ views that an original doesn’t exist, so how can the Syrian text be “of all existing manuscripts the oldest and closest to the original”[7] when an original never existed?

     ***********(I don’t want this many examples lumped together in this paragraph; which do you think are the best?)**** The effects of faulty translations are seen throughout each and every version of The Nights. For example, in “The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon,” the third man’s tale is omitted, and the reader accepts that his story was “even stranger and more amazing than the first two.”[8] This missing anecdote is perhaps due to blunders and inaccuracies in subsequent translations throughout the centuries. In Edward W. Said’s renowned Orientalism, he states that the “Orient” was synonymous with “exotic, mysterious, and profound.”[9] These generalizations about the lifestyle of the East can be attributed to the glorified and highly sexualized nature of the East in the early European translations of The Arabian Nights. Furthermore, Haddawy discusses the sloppiness of translators before him and insists that translation “requires command of the languages involved and of the literary idioms and conventions of both cultures.”[10] His unsurpassed attitude towards the both the Syrian manuscript and Mahdi’s interpretation permits Habegger-Conti’s previously mentioned assertion about the faults of his version as well. Haddawy also criticizes Burton’s translation as being “interested in the exotic” and wanting “to shock [the] prudish sensibility” of Victorian England with the presence of black slaves making love to Shahrayar’s wife and her slaves.[11] This criticism attempts to make his work seem more legitimate and original than the previous translations. Edward W. Lane’s translation is also criticized because of his annotations and illustrations: The Nights is “‘a frivolous text’ manipulated by Europeans to support preconceived notions of Arab character.”[12] Schacker-Mill’s statement encompasses all translations and their failure to truly embody the East without allowing preexisting stereotypes cloud their translation.

In Beautiful Infidels, Habegger-Conti criticizes both the Galland and Mahdi translations of The Arabian Nights. Galland’s lack of credibility stems from his obvious lack of care for the culture and accuracy of the stories – so much so that he took liberties with editing, adding, and omitting portions of text.  While Mahdi’s version tends to be regarded in a better light, Habegger-Conti dismisses that thought by suggesting that a true original never existed, so the basis of Mahdi’s version cannot be closest to something that is nonexistent. By analyzing The Arabian Nights and their many aspects, it is obvious that no translation can be taken as completely accurate, regardless of the translator’s intentions. The many altered versions of these ancient tales complicate our understanding in many ways – what was the East really like? Can we make any conclusions about the “Orient” based on reading translations of The Nights? While some aspects of translations are simply misinterpretations, others are blatantly inaccurate. ***************(too cliché?) Regardless, we still loosely base our understanding of the East on these dated stereotypes, but each and every translation should be taken with a grain of salt.

****To peer-editors: It would be really helpful if you guys were able to answer specific questions I put with asterisks and in red! Also, I know for the footnotes, I can shorten them all after the first one of the same source, but I’ll do that for the final draft when everything is in order. Thanks!

[1] Jena Habegger-Conti, “‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights,” Transnational Literature 4, no.1 (2011), http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/25494/1/Beautiful_infidels.pdf

[2] Jena Habegger-Conti, “‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights,” Transnational Literature 4, no.1 (2011), http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/25494/1/Beautiful_infidels.pdf

[3] Jena Habegger-Conti, “‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights,” Transnational Literature 4, no.1 (2011), http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/25494/1/Beautiful_infidels.pdf

[4] Jena Habegger-Conti, “‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights,” Transnational Literature 4, no.1 (2011), http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/25494/1/Beautiful_infidels.pdf

[5] Jena Habegger-Conti, “‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights,” Transnational Literature 4, no.1 (2011), http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/25494/1/Beautiful_infidels.pdf

[6] Jena Habegger-Conti, “‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights,” Transnational Literature 4, no.1 (2011), http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/25494/1/Beautiful_infidels.pdf

[7] Jena Habegger-Conti, “‘Beautiful Infidels’ and ‘Poisonous Fruits’: Expressing and Contesting the Transcultural Tradition of the Thousand and One Nights,” Transnational Literature 4, no.1 (2011), http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/25494/1/Beautiful_infidels.pdf

[8] Husain Haddawy, The Arabian Nights (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), 36.

[9] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 51.

[10] Husain Haddawy, The Arabian Nights (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), xxxi.

[11] Husain Haddawy, The Arabian Nights (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), xxvii.

[12] Jennifer Schacker-Mill, “Otherness and Otherworldliness: Edward W. Lane’s Ethnographic Treatment of The Arabian Nights,” Journal of American Folklore 113, no. 448 (2000), http://muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hia&AN=3135403&site=ehost-live&scope=site

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