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Tell Another

The book of the thousand and one nights gains a direct translation from the Arabic

One of the most incredible stories in the world of literature will probably never be told. And, if it does happen, it will be no more than a mere creation or invention. It is the question of recounting what the origin is, who are the author(s), and when exactly it was written. The book of a thousand and one nights, humanity’s most popular and influential works of fiction of all times. And one of the most ancient – the most distant records in time are from the 3rd century BC. Almost the same age as the New Testament of the Bible. The curiosity, though, is not limited to the authorship and to the context of its creation.

In the course of over one century, in Brazil alone almost one hundred different editions of the book were published in the most diverse forms: mutilated, censured, abridged, modified or adapted, for example, to the children’s universe. Not to mention the more or less serious problems with translation. One curiosity dates from 1882, when Machado de Assis prefaced an edition of Selected Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, with a translation by Carlos Jansen, from an edition in German by Franz Hoffmann. Never, though, has the work been translated directly from the Arabic in Brazil.

Problems that happen all over the West because of countless difficulties – cultural, historical etc. In the last few years, though, an effort has been made in Europe to look for the most ancient and original texts possible. In this regard, the Brazilian reader can feel privileged. Thanks to the personal endeavor of translator Mamede Mustafa Jarouche, there has just come out in Portuguese (Ed. Globo, 424 pages, R$ 55.00) the first of five volumes translated from the three tomes of the Arab manuscript archived in the National Library of Paris, regarded as the most valuable source for publishing the book.

Like the fairy tales for children, with The Book of the Thousand and One Nights the reader learns the exemplary path of life by means of terror, piety, love and hate. As everybody knows, it is about the story of King Shahriyár who, after discovering that his wife was betraying him with a slave, decided to marry every night with a new woman and to kill her on the following day. The terrible ritual is only interrupted with the arrival of Shahrazád, the daughter of the most important vizier of the kingdom. Cultured and intelligent, she starts telling hundreds of stories that grip the attention of her husband until the following night, which prevents her death. She does this for 1001 nights. In this period, she seduces the sovereign until he falls in love with her.

The first volume brings the first 170 nights. Jarouche compared the manuscripts used with four of the main Arabic editions of the book, with the purpose of filling gaps in the original texts and pointing to variants of interest for the history of the modifications made in the book. They are from Breislau (1825-1843), Bulaq (1835), the second edition from Calcutta (1839-1842) and the one from Leiden (1984). He also used four manuscripts from the so-called ancient Egyptian branch. As if that were not enough, he wrote a delicious and detailed introduction that takes the reader to the fascinating history of the book.

A work of passion, endeavor and competence that could well be exported to other western languages. The intricate history of the supposed sources in Persian and in Sanskrit that were said to be the basis for the book are dealt with in the essay as well. The translator took the care to make dozens of notes with linguistic aspects, references to the Arabic manuscripts and editions and attachments with translations of passages that have more than one wording.

All this helps one to understand better the influence of the book on popular literature over the centuries, both in the East and in the West, the dimension of which is still awaiting volunteers to be started. “This is also due to the limitations of knowledge, since a repertoire like this would call for a very vast learning, which certainly few have, of many literatures in many epochs”, Jarouche reckons. Some clues can be pointed out in this regard.

Leon Kossovitch, a professor of USP’s philosophy course, observes that, in the fiction of the illuminists, for example, many things that seem to be an appropriation from The Thousand and One Nights may be an effect of the reading of more ancient texts that were circulating in that epoch. “There is a subject that would require teams to be formed”, Jarouche adds. In spite of stressing that the expression “influence” can be understood as a claim to precedence, to priority, which would be difficult to stain, the art of story telling has direct relations with The Thousand and One Nights. “I would not, however, know how to specify whether these relations or whether their stories are a result of this skill or whether they contributed towards developing it.”

By Jarouche’s research, there are four translations of the book in English – Lane, Payne, Burton and Haddawi. And at least two in Spanish – Vernet and Cansinos-Aséns. It was from the 18th century onwards that the stories of the book began to be translated into countless idioms and became so popular that Luis Borges regarded them as “a prior part of our memory”. “And, rightly so, since who does not know Ali Baba, Aladdin, or Sinbad the sailor, personages from the memory of all children?” the translator asks.

Since the 18th century, various important writers different between themselves have inspired themselves on The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. Like Voltaire, Macaulay, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust, Borges, Jonathan Swift and Naguib Mahfuz. “It’s difficult to find good narratives that haven’t, one way or another, suffered the influence of this work.”

Although Machado de Assis had hailed the book, it is known that many Brazilian literati had consumed the work a long time back, from the translation by Galland. To start with, the version of the text by Mardrus circulated in Portuguese, from the end of the 19th century, published in the 1960’s by Saraiva, with illustrations by Aldemir Martins. Another that became popular was the one from the Book Club in the 1950’s. Finally, the one by Arabist René Khawam came out, from Brasiliense, in 1990. From his research, amongst the children’s versions, some are signed by writers like Ferreira Gullar, Carlos Heitor Cony and Sabá Gervásio. The “adult” ones, without exception, were done from the French.

It is easy to perceive this influence also in Raduan Nassar, Milton Hatoum, Nélida Piñon, Lima Barreto etc. Not to mention the “domino effect”, as in the case of Machado de Assis, who was said to have taken the original idea for Dom Casmurro from a work by Abbot Prevost, which, in turn, had been suggested to him by Galland’s translation of The Thousand and One Nights – which, in turn, would not exist without the Arabic original, as observes Gilberto Pinheiro Passos, a professor on USP’s French course.

The translator recalls that Galland’s version does not clarify which text served as a basis for it, since the work, dating from the beginning of the 18th century, kept on suffering modifications perpetrated by publishers. “Mardrus’s doesn’t even take the trouble to clarify which its source was. And in R. Khawam’s, passages are missing, as I was able to corroborate, and the few notes were eliminated, in a pettiness characteristic of a certain kind of Brazilian publisher, which is fortunately fated to disappearance.”

Up until then, the edition closest to the original had eight volumes. It was the one from Brasiliense, based on the French version by Khawam, a Syrian from Aleppo. Jarouche regards this as a meritorious work, but incomplete and full of problems. Such as having suppressed the division of the book into nights. “Even though, following a certain point, the wording of this division become absolutely stereotyped, almost mechanical, and even if you take into consideration that some manuscripts show a chaotic numbering, it does not seem correct to me to suppress one of the main characteristics of the book.” It is not, though, an innovative procedure, since the first translator of the Frenchman Galland had already adopted this criterion.

Another of Khawam’s shortcomings was to adopt somewhat questionable thematic criteria. In French, his work was organized in four volumes, and the first three correspond to the most ancient manuscript, and the last one includes stories from a different source, which he decided to constitute the “original” nights. Furthermore, the reader does not find in the collection the stories of Ali Baba, Aladdin and Sinbad.

Jarouche explains that the first two heroes do not have an Arabic text prior to Galland’s text. And they are not to be found in any Arabic edition of the Nights. Galland is said to have heard them from a Syrian, did the translation, and incorporated them into his work. The story of Sinbad is present in the late manuscripts of the Nights and was added to the printed editions. It is part of the book’s canon today. “I will not say that Khawam’s translation is incomplete, because that would be unjust. I just remind you that, according to the criteria that he established, only the ‘more ancient’ texts came into it, those from the Syrian branch, plus three or four others that he regarded as being ancient as well.”

Besides being a translator, Jarouche is a doctor in literature and a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of São Paulo (USP). He studied and worked in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and Egypt, where he did postgraduate studies. From the Arabic, besides some sparse texts, he has now translated The Hundred and One Nights and The Book of Kalila and Dimna.

Just the first two volumes of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights took two years of intense dedication. The expectation is that the other three will be concluded by 2007. Although the translation actually started in 2003, it has now been several years since he has been researching about the book. In 2000, he spent a one-year spell in Cairo as a postgraduate scholarship holder from Fapesp. “I think that it is important to highlight this for it not to seem that it is just a question of a dry translation.” During this experience, he found a manuscript, the date of which corresponds to the year of 1808, which had 1007 nights.

The project
The rhetoric of the narrative transformations of the Book of the Thousand and One Nights (nº 99/08803-6); Modality Scholarship Abroad; Coordinator Mamede Mustafa Jarouche – USP; Investment R$ 71,366.00 (FAPESP)