Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Arabian Nights Series Part 2: Burton Vs Lyons Translation Throwdown

(Written by Timeless Tales Magazine Editor Tahlia Merrill Kirk)

This is Part 2 of a series about reading Tales of 1001 Nights. To start at the beginning of the series, click HERE.

Your Arabian Nights Quote of the Day:

I asked an old man walking with his beard down to his knees: “Why are you so bent?” He waved his hands at me. “My youth was lost on the ground,” he said, “And I am bending down to look for it.

- Malcolm C. Lyons. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights: Volume 1. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Lyons' 2008 Translation

Since the complete unabridged Arabian Nights is around 2,600 pages (the notoriously long War and Peace is only around 1,225 pages), the circle of people who have read the entire thing is relatively small. But there’s always one question that pops ups first when you meet the rare member of this club: What translation are you reading?

For a long time, there was only one option if you wanted a complete unabridged translation. There are dozens of partial or abridged compilations, many heavily edited to take out the sexual content and insert Christian morals. The first to successfully tackle the entire collection was Sir Richard Francis Burton. His 1885 edition stood alone in this category for over a hundred years until Malcolm C. and Ursula Lyons published their Penguin Classic edition in 2008. Considering how long it takes to simply read the full collection, can you imagine being the person who painstakingly converts each page from Arabic to English? The thought blows my mind.

Sir Richard Burton
Photograph by Rischgitz/Getty Images
Burton’s version is beloved for its grandiose language and extensive footnotes that provide insight into Middle Eastern culture. He deliberately crafted his writing style to evoke epic literature by Medieval and Elizabethan writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare. But perhaps what Burton fans admire most about his work is its authenticity. All those footnotes came about during his many years living in the Middle East, so much of his research stems from firsthand accounts.
It’s impossible not to indulge in a small detour about the colorful character of Burton himself. His thirst for adventure led him into plenty of dangerous situations. He infamously disguised himself as a Muslim to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, going so far as to become circumcised to avoid discovery. He was once on an expedition that got attacked by Somali warriors and survived being impaled by a javelin through both cheeks. He immersed himself in every culture he visited and mastered over 26 languages. This larger than life legacy undoubtedly contributes to the continuing popularity of his books. There’s something extra exciting about reading a version of Arabian Nights knowing that the author was a real life Indiana Jones.

And after all that buildup, I will now break the news that Ron did not read Burton’s translation. He read the newer Lyons’ version. Sure, Malcolm and Ursula don’t have any stories on their Wikipedia page about being chased out of town on horseback by 300 soldiers--wait, let's give them the benefit of the doubt--I'll fact check that before I make such a broad generalization…
Guys, neither Ursula nor Malcolm have a Wikipedia page. This is tragic! And makes for boring blogging! Their Goodreads pages lead me to believe that The Arabian Nights is probably their lives’ magnum opus. I'll just imagine some amazing romance that brought this couple together in their joint quest to rebirth this great epic book…

Okay, joking aside, the Lyons version of Arabian Nights actually has a lot going for it. Think of Burton’s version as the King James Version of the Bible and the Lyons’ translation as NIV. Lots of people love KJV for its beautiful evocative language that is steeped in tradition and history. But others prefer NIV for being straightforward and easier to understand. It’s the same with Arabian Nights. Burton has a tendency towards rambling and flowery language, using “thee”s and “thou”s to evoke an archaic tone. He deliberately chooses obscure words, using Latin whenever the chance arises. My incredibly well read friend Adam enthused about how many new words he learned from Burton’s text. Constantly googling words is fun for some, but cumbersome for others. The Lyons, on the other hand, take a more grounded approach. They aim for clarity and a smooth effortless reading experience. You’ll never lose the train of thought or get exhausted after reading one tale. Some might argue that the Lyons version lacks pizzazz, but others would say that they allow the words to speak for themselves. 

If you want a more detailed comparison The Guardian wrote this amazing post about the two editions. It even has two side-by-side examples of how drastically different they are. 

If anyone knows how to get in touch with the Lyons, I would love to interview them about the translation process and what their goals were in creating this new edition. 

For those who are interested, here's a link to the Penguin Classics Volume 1-3 that Ron read:

Next up in this blog series: Is Arabian Nights Super Sexist? Stay tuned!


  1. i never found the burton to be especially cumbersome to read, but i grew up reading voraciously and indiscriminately in a house with its own small library, largely stocked with older volumes: shakespeare, victorian literature and poetry, classics...a great jumble of reading material from the early 1800s to the present day. (i still retain a mad fondness for victorian and edwardian etiquette books...) i can see a place for both iterations of the 1001 nights. burton was a bit florid; a better linguist than author, perhaps, although not remarkably florid for his day. and the sample i saw of the newer rendering via the guardian article does read a trifle more smoothly to modern literary sensibilities. that same brief sample, though, also showed a certain "flatness", as the article writer put it, in the new translation. i'd need to see more lengthy passages to say whether it is a sustained or merely occasional issue. people seem unable to decide whether to categorise the "nights" as high literature or as folk tales; in truth, of course, they are both, being a compendium of tales drawn from a variety of sources and times. the comparison to the KJV versus NIV biblical versions is very apt: people treasure the KJV for its archaic "poetic" quality, and the NIV is dreadfully dull, no question. but the KJV is also riddled with simply flawed translations and outright erroneous ones, which may or may not bother a specific reader, i suppose. at any rate, i'd often wondered how much of burton's own mental processes got into the "nights", and what was intrinsic to them in the original arabic. with this later translation/rendering, perhaps we get a chance to see something closer to the original, and experience it a little more directly, rather than through a lens unavoidably coloured by burton's own biases, anti-biases, and internal conflicts. enquiring minds want to know, as the slogan used to say...

  2. Okay, so I guess I'll take Lyons. I may be curious about the archaic tone, but I'm not reading this TWICE, so better to have simple. Thanks for explaining this!