Translating the enduringly popular tale Aladdin, Yasmine Seale says, “made me feel like there was a plan in my life all along and everything had been leading to this moment.” Speaking from a sun-drenched room in her home in Istanbul, she explains, “It was written down in the 18th century by a Frenchman, Antoine Galland, based on the story he was told by a young Syrian traveler named Hanna Diyab, so it is both a product of France and also of the Arab world. I grew up in France and studied French literature, with a particular interest in the 18th century, and then went to university and studied Arab literature. So it’s a text that combines my two great interests.”

In November, Norton will publish Seale’s rendering of Aladdin as a standalone volume introduced by Paulo Lemos Horta, a scholar of world literature and cross-cultural collaborations. Seale says Horta suggested releasing Aladdin in advance of her translation of the complete text of The Arabian Nights, which will appear in stages over the next five years and which includes Aladdin. “We realized that Aladdin is not available to buy separately except in children’s versions, and as a result people don’t really know the story. This became particularly striking during the controversy about the casting of Disney’s live-action film. All these opinion pieces were being written about how they should cast Arabs, with people arguing back and forth about cultural authenticity—about a story that was set in China to begin with and wasn’t particularly Arab. We thought it would be useful for people to be able to read the full text, which is usually buried in these massive volumes that are quite inaccessible.”

Seale continues: “It was very important to us to rehabilitate Aladdin as the product of an exchange and a mutual fascination. Paulo wrote a whole book about this—Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights—and he devotes a chapter to the idea that, rather than see Aladdin as Galland’s projected vision of the East, it’s more plausible to think of it as Diyab’s vision of France. Diyab was brought to Versailles and presented to the king; there’s a section in his diary about the princesses he meets that has striking similarities to the princess in Aladdin, and the splendor and luxury he saw at the French court also find their way into the story. There are also passages whose details are lifted from travelers’ accounts we know Galland was reading at the time. Aladdin is probably a mixture of an older story Diyab heard in Aleppo, where he grew up, and his own experiences and insights, mixed with Galland’s observations from when he lived in Constantinople as secretary to the French ambassador, mixed with, no doubt, 100 other things. That’s what made it such a strange and slippery object to translate—because it’s not a stable text.”

Seale’s version of Aladdin is more direct and conversational than previous English translations. “I was trying to bring out the freshness, vivacity, and wit I saw in the original French; Galland was an incredibly witty and playful person. I didn’t want to do what a lot of other translators of the Nights have done, which is to translate it into deliberately archaic language. The 19th-century translators all did this, Richard Burton most famously; his translations, even by Victorian standards, are incredibly florid and elaborate. It was a way of creating this sense of distance from the world these texts came from—a sense that the East was unfathomable, strange, and alien. I wanted to bring out the modernity that is already in the text.”

Aladdin is one of the “orphan tales” of The Arabian Nights, written down in French by Galland from Diyab’s oral versions and not found in any earlier Arabic manuscripts. Translating the 14th-century Arabic texts is “a completely different experience,” Seale comments. “Galland’s style is fairly close to what we would recognize as English prose, but in the Arabic there is no punctuation; clauses are separated by the word wa, which means and, or the word fa, which can mean so, or then, or however, or because. As a translator, you have to intervene to shape the narrative and create a readable English paragraph. To want ‘authenticity’ in The Arabian Nights is a bit of a misnomer: these are stories that have continually shifted, that are constantly changing, that are made of their accretions and layers.”

Seale gives the tales’ narrator, Scheherazade, as an example. “In the framing story that begins the Nights, this king kills his unfaithful wife and decides to take a new woman every night and kill her in the morning,” she explains. “Scheherazade intervenes and says, ‘I will save my sisters from this fate.’ What we know about her from the story is that she has collected books, she has a library, she has studied and memorized tales from previous times and the history of bygone ages. She is in this sense a translator and reinterpreter of these stories. Thinking about Scheherazade helped me think about the whole text as a series of conduits—stories being channeled through a series of vessels, Scheherazade being one. Every single person who has written them down, every translator, everyone who’s added to this ocean of stories, is a kind of boatman ferrying the stories along. It makes sense to me, rather than thinking about this binary of original and translation, to break down that boundary. It’s a very interesting time now; we are thinking about translation in looser ways, admitting the idea of translation as a creative act and maybe putting aside the idea of fidelity to the original as the only standard of a translation’s quality. In the case of The Arabian Nights, it really doesn’t apply. Fidelity to what? When you have a story that exists in 80 different versions, you have to make choices. To translate the Nights means continuing to shape the stories and acknowledging that you are bringing your own sensibility to them rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.”

Seale’s own sensibility, shaped by a cosmopolitan, multicultural background, gives her a special sense of kinship with Aladdin. “My mother is Syrian, but my father was a mix: his parents were Russian and Tunisian, he had grown up in Britain, and both my parents wrote in English. I grew up speaking and hearing three languages: French, English, and Arabic. For a long time I felt that I was just going to be French; my studies focused on French literature, and that was going to be my identity. Then I thought, ‘No, I must learn Arabic and understand it properly—that’s part of my heritage.’ That’s why this work has been so pleasurable; I feel I can bring all that to the table and I don’t have to choose. Galland’s description of Topkapi Palace—which I can see from my window—finds its way into the descriptions of the mythical palaces in Aladdin, but so do Diyab’s experiences at the palace of Versailles. Aladdin is neither just an Orientalist fantasy, nor is it just the vision of a Syrian person in France; it’s both at the same time, and I find it moving that it can be both.”