Ahmedabad Mirror | Updated: Aug 14, 2017, 02.00 AM IST

It is fi tting that the fi rst English translation of the Arabic tales of The Thousand and One Nights can now be traced to India, where Shahrazad’s frame tale and so many other famous stories fi nd antecedents. Published in 1838 in Calcutta, the fi rst volume of the Arabian Nights by Henry Torrens, a young colonial offi cer, has been virtually ignored by previous scholars.

In fact, it is the invisible thread that weaves through the early history of the Arabian Nights in English to the present day. The first English translation of Shahrazad’s tales from Arabic is usually credited to Edward Lane and understood as the fruit of his immersion in the Cairo in the mid-1820s and 1830s, where he attested to feats of local magicians who could summon the jinn. Yet Lane’s correspondence shows he was working furiously on his translation in London in 1837 to keep up with Torrens, his “formidable rival” in India.

Torrens’s translation was shaped by the debates associated with Macauley’s famous dismissal of the worth of “Oriental literature” and the turn to English as the language of education and administration within the colonial administration. In 1835, Torrens was assigned the uncomfortable task of explaining to a group of students of Sanskrit in Calcutta why the bursaries that had previously supported their study were being cut off. The protesters could not have suspected that in fact Torrens sided with their cause. It wasn’t the first time Torrens had disagreed with the position of his superiors.

By temperament a poet and satirist, Torrens had a long history of questioning the rationality and fairness of British colonial policies in India. A liberal in the 19th century sense of the term, Torrens was an early champion of the free press in India, believing it could serve as a check against British colonial authority, and he was cofounder of the first newspaper in the Upper Provinces. In 1834, he drew on these connections to publish in Meerut and Calcutta, under a pseudonym, a vicious satire mocking those who argued against use of vernacular languages in colonial India.

An accomplished linguist, Torrens was sought after as an interpreter for foreign princes during his time as secretary to the governor. Unlike Lane, Torrens was the consummate man of letters, a patron of Anglo-Indian journalism, a contributor of poems, songs and plays for local literary soirées, and the author of a novel first serialised in the Calcutta Star. While Lane felt the poetry of the Arabian Nights to be untranslatable, Torrens relished the challenge of capturing the spirit of a people through what he believed was its most characteristic form — poetry.

If Lane borrowed the cadence of the King James Bible for his translation, Torrens was adept at writing in a wide variety of genres and changed his register to suit each tale. Torrens had the advantage of working from an Arabic manuscript (later known as the Macnaghten or Calcutta II) that many consider the most comprehensive since it contained a full 1,001 nights of stories. Versions of The Thousand and One Nights were already circulating in India in several languages, and they had already been integrated into the apparatus of Orientalist language production under the East India Company.

An Arabic version containing 200 nights (known as Calcutta I) was edited and printed by munshis for use at Fort William in Calcutta as a teaching text, and an Urdu translation was used on language exams for colonial officers. Torrens’s translation was prompted by the appearance of a new Arabic manuscript in 1836, vetted by W H Macnaghten, another defender of the value of ‘Oriental’ languages. Macnaghten would lead the effort to edit the manuscript for publication in Arabic, but much of the work would be performed by munshis within the Persian office.

After Macnaghten joined British and Indian troops on their ill-fated effort to occupy Kabul (until his assassination in 1841), prep of the Arabic edition of The Thousand and One Nights proceeded smoothly through efforts of native language experts. Many translators, including Richard Burton in the late 19th century and Malcolm Lyons in the early twenty-first, have returned to the Macnaghten text produced in these years, but Torrens’s translation has been largely forgotten. In fact, Burton dismissed its “hag-like nakedness” in an effort to promote his own idiosyncratic translation, which in fact borrowed substantially from his precursor’s experiments.

Like Torrens, Burton developed his philosophy of translation during his service in colonial India, where he relied on munshis to produce a basic translation of the source text. Burton would then elaborate this text with his own characteristic flair, layering his distinctive foreign-sounding style onto passages whose essence remained largely unchanged. Torrens and Burton shared more than the latter would ever admit. Both espoused a Romantic philosophy of translation.

Both took on the challenge of rendering the “untranslatable” poetry of the Arabian Nights, and both treated the sexual content of the stories with an unusual degree of frankness for their time. However, it is Torrens’s earlier version — without the virtuosic additions of Burton’s archaic diction — that strikes the reader as most modern. It is time to rediscover its pleasures, and to acknowledge the critical Indian context for its creation.

– Paulo Lemos Horta is the author of Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights


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