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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation / literary history

Marvellous Thieves

Paulo Lemos Horta

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To purchase Marvellous Thieves

Title: Marvellous Thieves
Author: Paulo Lemos Horta
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2017
Length: 298 pages
Availability: Marvellous Thieves - US
Marvellous Thieves - UK
Marvellous Thieves - Canada
  • Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating bits of (literary) history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review . 2/2017 Rbert Irwin
The National . 16/3/2017 Clare Dight
The Scotsman . 6/1/2017 Stuart Kelly
Times Higher Ed. . 2/2/2017 Shahidha Bari
TLS . 14/7/2017 Bruce Fudge
Wall St. Journal . 13/1/2017 Charles Shafaieh

  From the Reviews:
  • "In writing a biography of 200 years of Nights' translation, with its multiplicity of voices, sources, contexts and prejudices, Horta has breathed life into another great story to emerge from the Thousand and One Nights." - Clare Dight, The National

  • "This vivid, intellectually lively and revelatory book gives complex answers -- and brilliant stories of literary sleuthing – to a couple of seemingly simple questions (.....) The real point about this clever book is that many of the things we think about modernity -- let alone postmodernity -- have already happened." - Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman

  • "Horta’s research is evidently meticulous and deep, providing a fuller picture at nearly every important juncture in the publication history of the Arabian Nights. (...) (T)he great merit of Horta’s book is that its interest always lies in the story of the story, in mapping out the complex network of the translators, editors and travellers behind the Arabian Nights, in ways that enrich our sense of this remarkable text." - Shahidha Bari, Times Higher Education

  • "The dramatis personae of his monograph are certainly an engaging, eccentric bunch. (...) There is also a strange tendency to read certain passages as demonstrating the translator’s ideological or aesthetic bent, when in fact the matter in question is already present in the Arabic. Marvellous Thieves would have benefited, in more than one place, from a look at the original texts. (...) Not all readers will find his arguments and commentary convincing, but he has the advantage of extraordinarily rich subject matter." - Bruce Fudge, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As author Horta notes: "The Thousand and One Nights entered European literature at the beginning of the eighteenth century", with manuscripts collecting vernacular tales coming to the attention of a variety of scholars and soon finding large audiences in translation. These Arabian Nights (as they were most often translated as) were not a simple fixed, specific collection of tales, but were also selected and edited by translators and publishers, creating what was often a quite different work from the original(s) -- and versions that were often influenced by specific circumstances, which is what Horta focuses on in this book.
       Marvellous Thieves centers on the defining translations into French and English, including some of the best-known ones -- specifically those of Antoine Galland, Henry Torrens, Edward Lane, John Payne, and Richard Burton -- and shows how each was shaped by more than just the original text, including both other and previous translations, as well as outside sources (and circumstances).
       Horta begins with Galland, showing how the recently discovered (and published, in France (2015)) diary of a Maronite from Aleppo, Hanna Diyab, sheds additional light on the close relationship Diyab had with Galland -- to the extent that stories that Diyab recounted for him were simply integrated into Galland's version of Thousand and One Nights, 'orphan tales' (i.e. with: "no known Arabic manuscript source") that were significant parts of his work, and contributed to how the collection was seen and received. The most famous of these -- the stories of 'Aladdin' and of 'Ali Baba' -- are even among the best-known of the Arabian Nights-tales.
       Fascinating though Diyab's life-story is, and obviously relevant, Horta gets a bit sidetracked here, more concerned -- as also in some of the other cases -- with biography than with the resulting texts themselves.
       In the case of Lane, experience and text are better tied together -- even if often only more generally, as in Horta's discussion of how Lane edited out a great deal in the translation proper, while focusing more attention on the accompanying commentary. Horta notes -- and seeks to provide a counter to the fact that --:

     Scholars of Lane's work have seldom acknowledged just how comprehensively he prioritized the production of commentary over the literary labor of translating.
       Some insights warrant additional discussion -- but at least are a helpful starting points for readers, such as:
Despite the success of his Arabic lessons, [Lane] seems to have had difficulty following conversations that involved metaphorical language and the use of irony. Throughout his life, he seemed more comfortable with historical and philological texts than with the ambiguities of literary forms.
       Lane's treatment of female characters, or Burton's pushing the boundaries of what could be published at his time, are interesting examples of the influence of outside circumstances, personal as well as public, on the various translations.
       The inclusion of discussion of some of the lesser-known translations into English is also helpful: Henry Torrens' promising one remained unfinished, while John Payne's was, in fact, extensively relied upon -- indeed, often outright plagiarized -- by Burton. The Payne-story, in particular, is a fascinating one, as Horta shows that it is unlikely he was well-versed in Arabic, and his translation -- as critics have suggested from the beginning -- is obviously based largely on other translations, rather than any Arabic original, as his: "rewriting of the Arabian Nights was built on aesthetic principles rather than philological or ethnographic knowledge". The difficult position this put Payne in -- he couldn't defend his translation against some of the charges, since they were obviously true --, and the small edition of his translation, allowed Burton to piggy-back on it with little consequence, which Horta explains well.
       Horta does discuss personal backgrounds and experiences at considerable length, and much of this is relevant in how it influenced the works, such as Lane's experiences in Egypt, and his attitude towards women; still, it's a shame that Horta doesn't focus more on the different editions and translations themselves. He does, however, give a good impression of some of them -- particularly Burton's affected writing, noting, for example, that:
     In his version of the Arabian Nights, Burton pushed this foreignizing aesthetic of archaic and invented words almost to the point of self-parody. In these tales, the English reader is confronted with diction that is foreign, invented, and, even in Burton's time, archaic
       Admittedly, the personal and biographical detail is often interesting too, and there are any number of fascinating titbits, from the fact that Lane was to be paid 1,001 pounds for his translation (but the publisher went bankrupt before the entire sum was paid) to Burton's clever stratagem to gain copyright-protection for his work (as Payne had not (making it easier for Burton to plagiarize from him), the private subscription printing protecting him from the Obscene Publications Act but preventing him from securing copyright protection for it):
His solution was to copyright as much of his edition as he could by creating a bowdlerized version, Lady Burton's Edition of Her Husband's Arabian Nights, published in 1886. [...] This "Household Edition" of Burton's was a sales disaster, but it served the purpose for which it was intended.
       Horta has a great deal of very colorful material (and many colorful characters) to work with, from Diyab or the Cairene go-to-man for foreigners, Osman (originally: William Thomson), not to mention larger-than-life (and self-mythologizer par excellence) Burton. From the consequences of the time pressure on Lane and Payne to get their translations done to other quirks of the publishing world of the time, Horta does provide an often fascinating overview of the production of these different versions of the Arabian Nights. Nevertheless, the focus is very much on the 'marvellous thieves', and there are (many) times when readers might wish for more inter-action with and discussion of the texts themselves. Horta does get into aspects of this, often usefully -- as in his discussion of the role of commentary in Lane's version, or Payne's poetic ambitions and influences -- but on the whole discussion of the Arabian Nights themselves remains somewhat scattered. (Horta does mention -- but not discuss at any length -- the modern standard English edition, by Malcom and Ursula Lyons (Penguin Classics, 2008) -- and it is amusing to note that almost every mention explicitly calls it a: "literal translation", presumably in contrast to most of the previous efforts.)
       Marvellous Thieves does tell a fascinating story -- or, rather, many fascinating ones -- and is a welcome companion volume to any reading (and especially one of one of these versions) of the Arabian Nights. It is also valuable in showing how much context, and, in this case, the colonial experiences and interactions with a foreign culture influenced and affected the 'translations' -- though there's surely a lot more to be said about this, as Horta does not focus on the resulting texts themselves that much.
       Marvellous Thieves is very entertaining -- and provided much food for thought.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 January 2017

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Marvellous Thieves: Reviews: Paulo Lemos Horta: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Paulo Lemos Horta teaches at NYU Abu Dhabi.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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