What, no Burton?

by Diane Duane

Was watching the BBC program last night on the Arabian Nights, featuring Richard Grant. When they started dealing with the issue of translations, it surprised me a little that not a single word was said about Sir Richard Burton, though a fair amount of air time was spent on Edward William Lane, whose version of the Thousand Nights and a Night was extremely sanitized.

I find myself wondering whether some scholar involved with the program had a bug up the butt about Burton’s fairly explicit translation. Granted, it’s not as if the man isn’t a source for continuing controversy: you run into scholarly opinion suggesting that Burton had committed that most heinous of offenses, “getting too close to the material” — the literary version of “going native”. Stilll, it’s odd to see an analysis of the Nights that doesn’t even mention his name. I wonder what was going on…

It’s interesting also to note in passing that Burton discusses Lane in his introduction to his own translation. “That amiable and devoted Arabist,” Burton calls him, and then gently takes him to task for “converting the Arabian Nights to the Arabian Chapters. Worse still, he converts some chapters into notes. He renders poetry by prose and apologizes for not omitting it altogether; … he is at once too Oriental and not Oriental enough. …Worst of all, these handsome volumes are rendered unreadable …by the stuff and stilted style of half a century ago when our prose was perhaps the worst in Europe.” (Well, don’t mince words, Sir Richard, tell us what you really think…)

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