Sir Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights – by Dr. Amy Matthewson

Sir Richard Burton’s Arabian Night

What makes a good translation of a literary work? Is it faithfulness to the work, despite awkwardness or potential risk of making the reader feel lost in translation? Or is it the ability to engage a new audience with language and content that is culturally appropriate, even if not entirely accurate?

These questions, and no doubt more, must have entered the head of Sir Richard Burton (1821–1890) while translating The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, volume 1 on display now at the Royal Asiatic Society’s “Extraordinary Endeavours” exhibition at the Brunei Gallery.

A photograph of Richard Burton, writer, explorer, polyglot, can be found on the exhibition wall to the left of the case containing his translated book. He claimed to give readers a word-for-word translation from the original stories. His Translator’s Foreword in volume 1 explains, “These volumes, moreover, afford me a long-sought opportunity of noticing practices and customs which interest all mankind and which ‘Society’ will not hear mentioned.” Burton laments how “’Propriety’ cried us down with her brazen blatant voice, and the weak-kneed brethren fell away” (p. XVIII).

With these declarations, Burton’s 1885 translations emphasized the sexual elements of the original stories and Victorian restrictions on obscene publications meant his edition had to be published by subscription only. His wife, Isabel Burton, responded by sanitising his work and offered an edition that the entire family can enjoy, without causing anyone to blush.

Burton’s voluminous translations are bounded in stunning black cloth with gold total design on the front. A complete set, all 12 original editions is rare to find but a complete set does exist, sitting in the archives at the Royal Asiatic Society.

Next to Burton’s translation on display at the Brunei Gallery is an illustration titled, ‘The Sultan’s first sight of Alla Ad Deen’s Palace.’ This illustration by Stanley Llewellyn Wood (1866–1928) is only 1 of 100 scenes designed to be inserted into translations of the Arabian Nights. The illustrations, like Burton’s books and Lady Burton’s less scandalous editions, can all be viewed upon request.