Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights

Paulo Lemos Horta. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (356p) ISBN 978-0-674-54505-2
In this enchanting work, Horta, an assistant professor of literature at New York University Abu Dhabi, focuses on the European translations of The Arabian Nights that brought these Middle Eastern tales to a wide western audience. Horta introduces readers to the complexities of translation, showing how “the tales themselves are intertwined with the lives and ambitions of the tellers.” In the 18th century, Frenchman Antoine Galland relied on a talented storyteller from Aleppo, Hanna Diyab, who recounted tales, such as “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” that Galland was the first to include in his version. English translators in the 19th century included Henry Torrens, a linguist in colonial India who captured the stories’ sensuality and poetry; Edward Lane, a “Victorian empiricist” and scholar living in Cairo, who was helped by an Ottoman Scot and an Egyptian bookseller; pre-Raphaelite poet John Payne; and Richard Burton, a famed traveler who wove his own pilgrimage to Mecca into the tales and borrowed heavily from Payne’s version. Horta pays particular attention to the differing ways the translators handled a foreign culture’s nuances, including the roles of women. His fascinating search for the origins of The Arabian Nights as it exists today reveals a multitude of storytellers nearly as colorful as Sinbad or Aladdin. (Jan.)

This review has been updated to reflect that the author is female, not male.

Reviewed on: 11/14/2016
Release date: 01/01/2017
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