Historical Context

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Translation of The Arabian Nights
Sir Richard Burton’s The Arabian Nights was an immediate hit upon its publication in 1885. Based on the 1881 translation by John Payne, Burton’s work not only fed the growing demand of English readers for tales and images from the Oriental reaches of their empire, but its comparatively frank sexual references, its bawdiness, and its wild adventures also spoke to, as much as it shocked, the repressed prurient interests of its Victorian readership.

While Burton’s translation of the actual tales was nothing more than a slightly revised version of Payne’s, his ten-volume collection included copious notes on the histories of the stories, etymologies of Arabic phrases, and explanations of various Arabic customs and conventions. Of particular interest to his readers were his extensive notes on sexual allusions and references, a subject in which Burton had acquired a great deal of interest and expertise from his years of travel and study in the region.

Sexual practices had long been a part of Burton’s cultural and anthropological studies. While he was on military commission in India for the East India Company before his career as an explorer or writer began, he undertook a study, on the request of his superior Sir Charles Napier, of the homosexual brothels in Karachi. Burton’s clinical and graphic work fell into unsympathetic hands after Napier’s retirement, and as a result Burton’s military career was permanently damaged. Nevertheless, the experience set the tone for nearly all of Burton’s future expeditions and writings. Sexual practices continued to be the focal point of much of his career, so much so that upon his death, his wife burned several of his translation manuscripts because of their explicit erotic content.

Burton was well aware of the impact the sexual content of his work would have, and out of fear of prosecution under British obscenity laws, he published The Arabian Nights anonymously under his private imprint, the Kama Shastra Society, which he founded with F. F. Arbuthnot in order to produce joint, but anonymous, translations of...

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Literary Style

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The Arabian Nights is a collection of stories within stories, also known as ‘‘frames.’’ One narrator’s story contains or frames another narrator’s story. The outer or first frame is the story of the King who, in revenge for the infidelity of his first wife, marries a new maiden every night, takes her virginity, and slays her in the morning. This frame contains the second frame of Scheherazade’s story. In order to preserve her life, Scheherazade tells a seemingly endless story, and in her story, characters begin to tell their stories (additional frames). The convention of having a narrator tell the story of other narrators telling stories is seen in such works as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Medieval or Archaic Language
Burton’s translation is especially characterized by an ornate, archaic language style that he developed in order to imitate the medieval Arabic in which the original stories were written. Burton looked to earlier sources of English literature for his inspiration, such as Chaucer’s works and Elizabethan poetry and drama. Burton’s intentional use of archaic terms such as ‘‘blee’’ and ‘‘wight’’ contribute to the medievalization, as do the cadence and structure of his sentences. While Burton’s attempt at inventing a medieval English style was sharply criticized for its convoluted structure...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

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Burton, Richard F., ‘‘Preface,’’ in The Arabian Nights, Tales from A Thousand and One Nights, translated by Richard F. Burton, Modern Library, 2001.

———, ‘‘Terminal Essay,’’ in A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, translated by Richard F. Burton, Vol. 10, Burton Club ‘‘Baghdad Edition,’’ 1885–1886, pp. 63–302.

Burton, Richard F., trans., The Arabian Nights, Tales from A Thousand and One Nights, Modern Library, 2001.

Byatt, A. S., ‘‘Introduction,’’ in The Arabian Nights, Tales from A Thousand and One Nights, translated by Richard F. Burton, Modern Library, 2001, pp....

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Compare and Contrast

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Middle Ages: As portrayed in The Arabian Nights, women are regarded largely as property: a woman who is unfaithful to her husband can lawfully be executed. Single women who exercise sexual freedom are designated to a separate, lower class from married women.

Today: In many parts of the world, the inequality and mistreatment of women is still a major problem. However, due to women’s rights movements working from the late nineteenth century onward, in Western society in the early 2000s women have the same legal rights as men and can exercise both economic and sexual freedom and independence.

Late Nineteenth Century: Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights includes copious anthropological notes that, in many cases, reveal an attitude of cultural and racial superiority, reflecting an institutionalized racism that is an inherent part of the British Empire.

Today: Prejudice between races is still a problem; however, by and large the governments of Western society have removed institutionalized racism from their laws and have created domestic policies such as affirmative action in an attempt to reverse the damages of racist policy.

Late Nineteenth Century: Victorian society is scandalized by the frank sexual content of Burton’s translation and annotations of The Arabian Nights.

Today: Looser sexual mores allow for frank discussion...

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Topics for Further Study

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• In his preface to his translation, Burton promotes the study of the Arabian Nights among the British as a means of understanding the cultures and customs of the Muslim world, which made up a large part of the British Empire at the time. The popularity of Burton’s Arabian Nights translation was due in part to British interest in their ‘‘Oriental’’ colonies. Compare the British attitudes towards the Middle East in the nineteenth century with the policies of the United States and Britain towards that region today. Do you see any similarities? Differences?

• A. S. Byatt writes, ‘‘Collections of tales talk to each other and borrow from each other, motifs glide from culture to culture, century to century.’’ The Arabian Nights, itself a compilation, bears much resemblance to stories and folktales found in cultures around the world. It is also cited as one of the most influential works in English literature. Bearing both these points in mind, can you think of any authors, works of literature, or other folktales that bear a resemblance to The Arabian Nights? Describe these similarities.

• As a nineteenth-century British explorer and anthropologist, Burton showed in his work, life, and philosophies that he was very much a part of the British imperialist system. Much in his writings reveals that he shared the imperial attitude of racial and cultural superiority particularly over non-white and...

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Media Adaptations

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The Arabian Nights has been the inspiration of several film productions: the 1940s produced a handful of Nights-inspired films including: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), starring Arthur Lubin and Maria Montez and released by Universal Studios; Sinbad the Sailor (1947), starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and released by RKO Pictures; and Arabian Nights (1942), directed by John Rawlins, which is only loosely based on the story of Scheherazade. The Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini released his Il Fiore delle mille e una notte (The Tales of One Thousand and One Nights) in 1974, which was met with much controversy due to its explicitly erotic nature. All are available in VHS.

• The following film adaptations appeared later: Disney’s animated feature, Aladdin, released in 1992 and starring Robin Williams (VHS); Dreamworks Entertainment’s animated feature Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, released in 2003 and starring Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta- Jones (VHS and DVD); and the TV miniseries Arabian Nights, which aired September 18, 2001, and was subsequently available on DVD and VHS.

• An audio recording of Burton’s Arabian Nights is available from Blackstone Audiobooks as an eight-hundred-minute set of audiocassettes. It is narrated by Johanna Ward.

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What Do I Read Next?

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• Husain Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights is based directly on the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript and is considered, as of 2004, the best English translation of the tales. A version of this translation was issued by W. W. Norton in 1995.

The City of the Saints: Among the Mormons and across the Rocky Mountains to California, originally published in 1861, is Burton’s account of his travels in western North America, including his encounter with Brigham Young, the founder of the Mormon religion.

• Burton’s first published work, Goa, and the Blue Mountains: Or, Six Months of Sick Leave, was released in 1851 shortly after his stint as part of the East India...

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