I don’t know if you all recall my last post on the League of Fairy Tale Super-Writers, but at the time I had established a line-up of seven writers, collectors and scholars or teams of them who represented Earth’s Mightiest Fairy Tale Transcribers. The line-up consisted of: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Jacobs, Asbjornsen and Moe, Aleksander Afanasyev and the new guy Franz Xaver von Schonwerth. Now, at the time, I included von Schonwerth to be charitable and support a relatively new name on the scene (despite the fact that he did his work in the 19th century).
Now I’ve read his book and I’m a bit unimpressed. Few of the tales really jump out at me and they all seem very short and very blunt. A rereading may be beneficial, but until then it means he’s off the League roster.
But that just means it’s time to add a new League of Fairy Tale Super-Writers name to the roster!
Now, this time I chose to do something a little bit different. The member I chose is not a collector like the Brothers Grimm or a writer like Hans Christian Andersen, but a translator. However, for a certain part of the world, he contributed a great deal regarding the popularity and diffusion of fairy tales. That’s why the newest member of the League of Fairy Tale Super-Writers is . . .
Sir Richard Francis Burton!
Now who is Sir Richard Francis Burton? He’s the man who wrote what has come to be the standard English translation of The Thousand and One Nights. Now, don’t get me wrong, The Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights) existed long before Richard Burton. It’s one of the oldest anonymous works of Arabic writing there is. But like I said, the work is anonymous. Though the stories in the Nights are largely acknowledged to have folk roots, no one knows who it is that wrote them down. On that note, we may as well give the storyteller Scheherazade from the book’s framing sequence the credit. We know more about this fictional woman than we do about who actually compiled the book that she’s in.
The true acclaim for those associated with The Thousand and One Nights these days goes to those who undertook the massive job of translating it. Burton wasn’t the first. The first translation into a European language was by Antoine Galland into French. There were other translations by Edward Lane and John Payne as well. Now, Burton’s translation, which takes up ten volumes, is not without controversy. His version includes stories from Galland’s that are not in the original Arabic manuscript. These were stories that Galland claimed to have heard from a Syrian storyteller. Accusations of plagiarism were made. His version of the text was criticized at the time for its archaic language and great focus on sexuality.
But still, Richard Burton’s translation of the Nights continues to be a standard. To some extent, the things he was accused of may have made his work more appeal in the long run. The stories picked up from Galland are considered perennial favorites like “Aladdin and his Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. His archaic language gives the stories a feeling of exoticism and antiquity. His focus on sexuality in the tales gives them a sense of the risqué and forbidden. Also, maybe we just want to associate stories like The Thousand and One Nights with someone like Burton. Burton was an explorer, soldier, spy, cartographer, scholar, poet, fencer and diplomat among other things. He once even disguised himself as an Afghani Muslim so that he could visit Mecca so that he could measure and sketch the Ka’bah, a great holy Muslim shrine. This was during a time when Europeans were not very welcome in the holy city at all and when bandits still plagued the road there. There is almost nothing I can do to not make this guy sound like Indiana Jones.
But most of all, what makes this guy part of the list is what he accomplished by created the translation that he did. He added to the collective view of fairy tales in the Western world. Where would the genre be without the exotic (or exotic to us in the West) addition of The Thousand and One Nights? Where would it all be without Aladdin, Sindbad, Ali Baba and Scheherazade? Where would the genre be without the djinn, the magic lamps, the mysterious treasure caves and the cry of “Open Sesame!”?
So, for that I gladly add Sir Richard Francis Burton to the League of Fairy Tale Super-Writers. Welcome to the League, Burton. Hope you survive the experience!