Controversies about “cultural appropriation” have reverberated loudly of late. Scandal erupted after the British band Coldplay released a video brimming with Indian imagery. Authorities in the field of higher education have issued warnings about potentially offensive Halloween costumes (no sombreros). Productions of The Mikado have been criticized, postponed, or scuttled because of concerns that casting and costuming would amount to yellowface. Underlying such controversies is widespread anxiety that borrowing from another culture can betray a blameworthy colonialist mindset.
Standards were far different in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when European translators set about rendering the Arabian Nights into French and English. As Paulo Lemos Horta makes clear in Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, the scholars, travelers, and empire-builders who transposed the tales into the languages of Voltaire and Shakespeare felt free to appropriate like crazy. While translating the narratives, they made telling omissions and subjective choices, added exotic or archaic diction to pump up the romance quotient, and took the opportunity to show off by yoking their own know-it-all commentaries to the stories.
Nor were such literary shenanigans the only dubious aspects of European efforts to translate the Arabian Nights, a loose array of tales, of undetermined authorship and varied provenance, which found their way into Arabic-language forms as early as the eighth century. Horta writes that English and French translations “were created within a literary context in which practices of imitation, forgery, and plagiarism flourished” —a fact that offers a new perspective on some of civilization’s best-known stories. Marvellous Thieves is not a light read; its attention to historical and textual detail can be strenuous, and its language is frequently academic. But, drawing on resources that include the Vatican Library, it offers some fascinating revelations about the translation efforts that turned the Arabian Nights—also known as One Thousand and One Nights—into the world’s inheritance.
The Arabian Nights translator with highest name-recognition today is surely Sir Richard Francis Burton, the nineteenth-century writer and explorer who is also known for traveling in disguise to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and for introducing Westerners to the Kama Sutra. That Burton’s “translation” of the Arabian Nights was grounded in plagiarism is not a new charge, but Horta draws on recent archival discoveries to delve into Burton’s brazen looting of an Arabian Nights by the Pre-Raphaelite poet John Payne, who may in turn have been ripping off other translators. (As for that 1883 English-language Kama Sutra, said to have been translated by Burton, Horta reports that it’s really the work of Sanskrit scholar Bhugwuntlal Indraji.)
But many of the most intriguing episodes of appropriation detailed in Marvellous Thieves involve Easterners who contributed to the West’s Arabian Nights in ways that have gone unacknowledged. Two of the best known Arabian Nights adventures—“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Story of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”—were supplied by Hanna Diyab, a Syrian Maronite Christian who traveled to early eighteenth-century France, where he related a batch of tales to Antoine Galland, the first French translator of the Arabian Nights. These yarns, now known as the “orphan tales,” have (with one exception) no known Arabic-manuscript source, yet they have joined the canon of the Arabian Nights.