Historical Context

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...

(The entire section is 880 words.)