Translations and interpretations, and adaptations! Oh, my! // formats of The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights has been translated and adapted into many different varieties and formats throughout the course of its extensive (known) existence. It is understandable that there are many discrepancies among the innumerable versions of the stories but there are also a considerable number of similarities to be noted.

The first format of the Nights that we read was Haddawy’s translation, The Arabian Nights. His seamless blending of the natural and supernatural characterized his rendition on these age-old tales. Also, the introduction to his translation asks that his version be considered a true translation – not word-for-word, but adapting the Arabic sayings and colloquialisms into what would be expressed in English. However, Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights: A Play did not address the omnipresent nature of the supernatural. Her conscious decision to include a vast majority of stories with no magical or supernatural elements could possibly have been to make the adaptation more relatable for outside audiences.

Both films we watched pertaining to The Arabian Nights included very similar cinematography; from their color schemes to architecture, they could be confused for bring the exact same movie (except one is animated and the other is live action). Perhaps the reason why The Thief of Baghdad and Aladdin’s architectural elements and color palettes mirror each is because the producers of Thief of Baghdad travelled to the Middle East to get inspiration in an attempt to be as culturally accurate as possible. Aladdin contains extremely similar elements because Disney based the landscape of the film on that of Thief of Baghdad.

All the formats of The Arabian Nights that we have discussed in class include mention of Islamic law and/or violence in the Middle East. Haddawy’s translation includes frequent mentions of beatings and murder, as they seem to happen in virtually every other tale. This is illustrated in the merchant’s beating of his wife in “The Tale of the Ox and the Donkey” and a woman’s cruel abuse towards her husband in “The Tale of the Enchanted King.” Aladdin also depicts the violent punishment that lawbreakers face; when Princess Jasmine takes an apple from a stand in the marketplace to give to a poor little boy, the shopkeeper immediately threatens (and gets ready) to chop off her hand as penalty for her crime.

Finally, all the formats of The Arabian Nights that we discussed in class included some sort of frame tale in their rendition of the stories. Haddawy includes his frame tale in the traditional way – Shahrazad tells stories to a vicious king to prevent him from killing her the next morning. Zimmerman also includes Shahrazad, but because her adaptation is meant to take place on a stage, Shahrazad’s words often overlapped with the actions and spoken words of those inside the story she is telling. This produced an extremely intriguing effect on the viewer (or reader, in this case). Aladdin’s frame tale begins with the infamous “Arabian Nights” ballad that opens the movie; a haggard old man attempting to sell some of his goods lures the audience in with a story about how a particular lamp changed a young boy’s life forever. The Thief of Baghdad also contains a frame tale in that Ahmad recounted the events of his life leading up to his present condition when he is unknowingly sitting inside the evil Jaffar’s palace.

While the many interpretations and adaptations of The Arabian Nights are characterized by their differences, we should not forget that they all stem (albeit very loosely) from the same original premise.

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