The Arabian Nights, Introduction by Xah Lee
Arabian Nights is a collection of folk tales of the Middle East area from 800 CE to about 1500 CE.
There are many versions of English translation. One of the earliest, authentic (and unbowdlerized) version is by explorer and orientalist Richard Francis Burton (1821 – 1890), translated around 1885.
Yours truely have read segments of Arabian Nights as a teenager growing up in Taiwan in the early 1980s, in particular the popular stories of Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba, all in Chinese and apparently children's version. As of 2004 December, i'm running a a-word-a-day English Vocabulary study service and also as a amateur writer enamored with classical English literature. I chanced upon Sir Richard's authoritative Arabian Nights and found it fantastically fascinating. This faithfully translated version contains not only the outrageous fairy tales of princes, paupers, magic, and genies, but such insistent themes of fornicating wives, and in fabrics of slaves and high-breasted virgins. And from these folklore of yore one learns oodles of ethnology and ethology, of human concerns and behaviors eternal. Apart from the content of the stories, Sir Richard's 1800s English writing is spectacularly arresting literarily. From it, one learns archaic lexicons and phraseologies in just about every paragraph that imparts insights of English and etymology. And, the poems interspersed throughout the tales are nothing short than poesy.
The Expurgated Version
This HTML version is derived on a copy from The University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection, 2004-12, at
To my chagrin, after a few months of daily annotation and study of Burton's writings, i realized that the version i'm using begotten online is actually the popular yet abridged version and there exists a unexpurgated version.
Here's a quote from The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition (1974 – 1997), on Sir Richard Burton:
He also published openly, but privately, an unexpurgated 16-volume edition of the Arabian Nights (1885-88), the translation of which was so exceptional for its fidelity, masculine vigour, and literary skill that it has frightened away all competitors. Moreover, he larded these volumes with ethnological footnotes and daring essays on pornography, homosexuality, and the sexual education of women. He railed against the “immodest modesty,” the cant, and hypocrisy of his era, displaying psychological insights that anticipated both Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud. His Nights were praised by some by for their robustness and honesty but attacked by others as “garbage of the brothels,” “an appalling collection of degrading customs and statistics of vice.”
The unexpurgated version is huge, in 16 volumes, and each volume includes a preface and a dedication, and with hundred pages of annotations. To read them all and understand them all is pretty much equivalent to a few years of study of Middle East and Islamic culture. Yours truely can't be making such undertaking. The text you see on this site are more or less random selections of tales from the unexpurgated edition, with corrections and editing and annotations of the words used. (A few may be from the expurgated version that i read and annotated before my discovery of the unexpurgated version. In the coming months, i will eventually re-read these and add possibly missing passages. (from my experiences of reading several tales of both versions, it appears that, if a tale is in both the expurgated and unexpurgated editions, they do not differ much in content other than the eliding of some bad poems and arcane translational notes and the story-within-story template.))
Most of the Burton's annotation are technical or miscellaneous notes about translation, or esoteric and arcane of interest to Islamic scholars. These annotations are not included here. Any annotation or passage, involving sexual ethology, or offensive to Christians or otherwise moral persons, will be included verbatim.
The complete 16 volumes of unexpurgated version can be found at: http://www.wollamshram.ca/1001/Vol_1/vol1.htm
Richard Burton's translation has been the most authoritative since its inception. However, its language is archaic and hard to understand to modern readers. In 1992, Husain Haddawy made a translation that is renowned for its authenticity of the original tales, and without the arcane English. I highly recommended it.
- 〈The Arabian Nights〉 (1992), by Husain Haddawy. Buy at amazon
- 〈The Arabian Nights II: Sindbad and Other Popular Stories〉 (1998), by Husain Haddawy. Buy at amazon
Thanks to people on alt.usage.english, for the discussion and contribution to answering questions i had while reading this work. In particular, John Dean, Mike Lyle…