The Arabian Nights

by Wen-chin Ouyang

The Arabian Nights – stories told by Queen Shahrazad over a thousand and one nights, to beguile the Sultan into deferring her execution – first began to appear in the West in the early 18th century, firing in the European imagination an appetite for the mysterious and exotic which has never left it. Collected over centuries from Persia and Arabia and India, and ranging from vivacious erotica, animal fables and adventure fantasies to pointed Sufi teaching tales, they provided the daily entertainment of the medieval Islamic world at the height of its glory.

English translations soon proliferated. Early ones were taken from Antoine Galland’s French version, but later scholars went back to the Arabic text and it is on three classic 19th-century translators – Richard Burton, Edward W. Lane and John Payne – that this anthology principally draws. It celebrates their role in bringing these stories to the centre of world literature, for they were subsequently retranslated into many other languages, including Chinese.

This collection showcases the richness and artistry of these English translations and to allow them to speak for the cultural context in which they were made. It is of academic importance in that it provides an alternative and more positive history of Orientalism, and reflects the history of Arabic Studies in Europe and North America and the ways in which they have fashioned the debate around Arabic literature and the translation of Arabic literary texts. It will also serve as a textbook for World Literature programmes and courses in the Anglophone world.

But above all its timeless tales, its stories within stories, continue to fascinate and enchant, and the variety of translations used can only add to the pleasure of the general reader. The new Everyman edition has been beautifully designed to give something of the flavour of the first editions and includes elegant illustrations by the popular early Victorian engraver and designer, William Harvey.