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2002-2003 Visiting Fellows

David Wrisley
American University of Beruit

"The French Translations of The Thousand and One Nights"

The English-speaking world knows the Arabian Nights by the famous translations of Burton and Lane. The first European translation of those medieval Arabic of stories entitled "Alf Leila wa Leila" was made, however, by the orientalist Antoine Galland. He published this work in French in twelve volumes between 1706 and 1720. Between that early eighteenth-century translation and the second major translation in French made by Joseph Mardrus a century later (1808-12), a flurry of other editions and reprints (some 75 according to Chauvin's Bibliographie des ouvrages arabes) of the Galland text appeared first in French and then in the other major languages across Europe.

J.H. Hanford's article for the Princeton Library Chronicle (XXVI, 1964-65) on the diverse collection of the Arabian Nights in English held at the Princeton University Library along with my scholarly interests in the practice of orientalist scholarship and the history of translation inspired me to take a look at the variety of French translations. Thanks to a Friends of the Princeton University Library short-term visiting fellowship, I was able to study in detail a number of these eighteenth-century French editions of the Galland translation in the summer of 2002.

In my research I noted not only on the textual modifications from edition to edition, but also investigated the French orientalists responsible for those editions. After examining the Galland edition ([Ex] 2263.2706.2), its form and its content, I chose to study the subsequent "reprints" of that base translation, in particular a fascinating one composed in nine volumes by Caussin de Perceval printed in 1806 ([Ex] 3229.616.123). From my research I intend to draft an article based on the latter, situating it in the context of French literary history of the period. I intend to focus on the plethora of paratextual material included in the eighteenth-century editions (notes, prefaces, commentaries) that give us an idea of the cultural meaning and worth of this translation to Europe. Linguistic features of the various translations from Arabic are complex and are detailed in the introduction to the now standard edition by Hussain Haddawy (1990-95).

Jean-Jacques Antoine Caussin de Perceval (1759-1835) was one of the well-placed orientalists in France in the generations following Antoine Galland's death in 1715. As a young man he was curator of the king's Oriental manuscripts. Later in life, he was appointed professor at the Collège de France. He made translations into French, in 1796 Apollonius of Rhodes' Expedition of the Argonauts from Greek, and in 1802 Howain's History of Sicily. In that same year, he published a two-volume Suite des mille et une nuits. Caussin was not alone in wanting to expand the original edition of Galland. Others such as Jacques Cazotte, a Frenchman who lived in Martinique, solicited the help of a Levantine (i.e. Arabic-speaking) monk to "translate" other tales not included in the manuscript held by Galland. No medieval edition of the text actually contained 1001 stories, but the popularity of the translations in Europe created a "demand for a complete edition" (Beaumont). Indeed, a textual history of the tradition of the 1001 Nights (to this day incomplete) would have to take into account numerous forgeries, inventions and varied sources from the Orient. It has been argued that the European expanded versions of the 1001 Nights even shaped, as if in a game of mirrors, the content of modern Arabic editions in India and Egypt by exporting new "authentic" texts.

The Princeton University Library's beautifully preserved 1806 edition in nine volumes of Caussin de Perceval gives one such example of a complex evolving textual history. Seven of the nine volumes contain a newly edited (and importantly, newly annotated) version of Galland's Mille et une nuits. The last two volumes complete the work, not only expanding the number of stories, but changing its overall scope and tone. It is to this composite work that I would like to turn.

Galland added footnotes occasionally to his tales of the Arabian Nights, thereby explaining some of the exoticism in his text. When Caussin de Perceval reprints Galland's text though, he takes this process of annotation to an entirely new level. At the beginning of the first volume, Caussin excerpts a portion of La Harpe's Lycée, the mammoth text of eighteenth-century literary historical scholarship. The passage chosen contains La Harpe's canonization and appropriation of the 1001 Nights as a great monument of "our literature." Caussin's editorial style continues in that spirit opening the medieval Arabic tales for the enjoyment and the edification of all readers and especially gens de lettres. In fact, this edition illustrates very well the professionalization of the Orientalist and the presentation of his erudition for public consumption.

At every turn, we are reminded by Caussin of the interest of such a text to the general reader, but unlike Galland's minimal annotation which seemed to privilege the literary integrity of the tales, Caussin's frequent interventions frame the 1001 Nights as a document of endless anthropological and historical interest. In the initial seven volumes (corresponding to Galland's original text) we read numerous footnotes commenting on questions of religious custom and the history of Islam, numismatics, Semitic etymologies, botanical and zoological facts, with even occasional comparisons to European cultural heritage. The last two volumes (8 and 9) illustrate most directly the spirit of Caussin's compilation. The stories themselves are taken from the same kind of "native informants" as those published by Cazotte and Chavis, yet Caussin is quick to distance himself from what he calls their "classicizing effect". He claims to translate the Arabic text more faithfully.

Caussin, it can be easily shown, also distances himself from Galland's style of translation where the clarity of the French-language text and its masterful composition can in and of itself please an audience. Caussin's 1806 text does not reflect the notion of language of a Boileau or a Racine, but suggests the something indeed has been lost in the translation. Annotation is essential. The philological commentary in volumes 8 and 9 is much more elaborate and Caussin even inserts back into the text transliterated Arabic and Persian fragments in italics which would seem designed to give back some the translation's lost authenticity. This re-orientalizing process goes along with a proliferation of commentary comparing the Arabic tales to great works in the Western tradition, Greco-Roman literature, medieval French and Italian stories and even the Song of Songs.

A further analysis of Caussin's edition will need to put these competing tendencies in his editorial practice into a larger context. His edition is after all both a testimony to his great predecessor Galland, and a renewal of the text, enriched by a (then) highly developed field of Oriental studies, created for a different audience with new expectations of Oriental literature and of the reading of foreign literature itself.


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