Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights by Paulo Lemos Horta - review by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

Stealing with Style

Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights


Harvard University Press 363pp £22.95 order from our bookshop

Translators of Beowulf, Proust, J K Rowling and car maintenance manuals have it easy, as in each case there is at least an authoritative text to work from. This is not the case with the Arabian Nights (or, to use the title closer to the original Arabic, the Thousand and One Nights). First, it has never been clear which stories properly belong to that collection and which recensions of those stories should be translated. Secondly, there has been a long tradition of Arabian Nights translators lying about what they were actually translating. The traditional story of how the Arabian Nights came to be translated into French, English and German is long, complicated and unedifying. Faked and nonexistent manuscripts, plagiarism and scholarly charlatanism all play a part in this narrative. Now, with the publication of Paulo Horta’s Marvellous Thieves, the story becomes more complicated, even less edifying and much more interesting.

Antoine Galland introduced the Arabian Nights to Europe with his French translation, entitled Les mille et une nuits (1704–17). Although his translation was mostly based on the oldest substantially surviving Arabic manuscript, dating from the mid-15th century, he also added material from elsewhere, including ‘The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor’. His publisher inserted some tales of Turkish origin translated by another Orientalist, François Pétis de la Croix, without Galland’s knowledge. Galland also included nine tales that had been told to him by Hanna Diyab, a Christian Arab who spent some time in France. Since no manuscript sources for these stories have been discovered (except for one of them), they are known collectively as the ‘orphan tales’. They include two of the most famous stories, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’. 

Horta focuses first on the ‘orphans’. It has long been noted that some of them carry moralising messages that are not characteristic of the Arabian Nights as a whole and were doubtless added by Galland to Diyab’s tales. Sylvette Larzul has pointed out how very French and formal the gardens,

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