The Annotated Arabian Nights translated by Yasmine Seale, ed by Paulo Lemos Horta
Liveright, HB, £29.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
After discovering his wife cheating on him, King Shahriyar begins a violent campaign of marrying a new woman every day, then beheading them the following morning. Shahrazad, Shahriyar’s vizier’s daughter, cannot bear this and so volunteers herself as his next bride with a plan. She spends their nights telling the king stories but stopping just before the ending. Intrigued, Shahriyar lets her live day after day, wanting to know how the stories end, until he acknowledges her wit and intelligence and truly makes her his wife.
Ok, so we all know the story of 1,001 Arabian Nights with its many-layered story within a story within a story format, so I won’t go into it in detail. Instead, I’ll focus on what makes this version worth adding to your library.
Obviously, as the title states, this is an annotated version, so there are illustrations and photographs of key moments from the story. I enjoyed these as they showed the lasting appeal with some of the pictures are from the 1800s, and others are photos from contemporary theatre productions. This is a feast for your eyes as well as your brain. It also explains the context Western society needs to appreciate Nights such as the supernatural elements like jinns who are regular antagonists in the tales.
The book starts with a fascinating introduction from Paulo Lemos Horta explaining how the original 1001 Arabian Nights would have been an oral tale translated into French by Antoine Galland. Throughout, the annotations examine possible French influences that might have subtly altered the original translation and discussed again at the end in the Afterword. The idea that a work that has affected how generations think about Arabic culture is heavily influenced by French Romanticism is quite a concept, and while this is not presented as definitive, it is interesting to see where the features that support this argument.
Translation is an important aspect when reading this work. Understanding the author and what influences they bring to their version is crucial. Yasmine Seale aims to break away from the traditionally masculine translation, looking to recapture Shahrazad’s voice. After all, this is a story about a woman risking her life to save others from a woman-hating king. Shahrazad’s tales must show Shahriyar that women are intelligent, trustworthy allies and partners. Anything else will convince him he is right to behead all the women he marries. It could be argued Yasmine Seale’s distinctively feminist slant fulfils Shahrazad’s intentions.
Towards the back of this book, there are stories told to Galland that weren’t included in the original translation and excerpts from other translations by famous writers. The annotations explore how the author’s personality has affected the story’s shape. And then there are the orphan stories which, it is suggested, Galland made up and included in his final version. I found this idea the most interesting of all. As I have already said, it is possible our understanding of Arabic Culture comes from French Romanticism.
Now, I believe this glorious work of art is worth its price. It is easy to read, packed with information that will have you questioning all of your previous assumptions, and it is beautiful to look at. The Annotated Arabian Nights is a worthy addition to any library, and you’ll find yourself going back to it just to touch it. However, Liveright Publishing has given us a discount code for British Fantasy Society review readers that gives you 30% off. To order The Annotated Arabian Nights at a special member discount of 30%, please click here and add the code WN837 when prompted at the checkout.
The Annotated Arabian Nights is an eye-opening piece of work. Detailed and thorough, you will lose yourself for hours in other worlds and stories that have endured the test of time. Highly recommended.