The life of the fictional Shahrazad depended on her ability to produce stories night after night, leaving them carefully unfinished at appropriate points so as to be asked to complete them later. In real terms throughout the Arab world, the reciters of such tales were concerned not with life but livelihood, for their audiences had to he encouraged to return, night after night, to attend the performances and reward the performers. As can be seen in the search for a text of the tale of Saif al-Muluk in Volume 3, the stories had manuscript backing, although sadly many of these manuscripts have been destroyed, lost or left unstudied and unedited. Edward Lane noted in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) how the reciters would allow themselves to take liberties with whatever texts they had to suit the taste of their audience. Successful accretions could be added to the conflated versions, so adding to the repetitions, non sequiturs and confusions that mark the present text. Except where textual justification can be found, no attempt has been made to superimpose on the translation changes that would be needed to ‘rectify’ these. This leaves a representation of what is primarily oral literature, appealing to the ear rather than the eye.

Success for the reciters did not depend merely on creativity, important as this is, but on the introduction of ingredients that their audiences would recognize and find attractive. Tautology, standard phrases, and repetition help this process, while colours add to and at times replace imagery—‘brown’ is applied to a spear, for instance, and ‘white’ to a sword. Such details can be multiplied at will but behind them lie universal questions of narrative technique. Specifically, inThe Arabian Nights the structure of the language itself did much to point the way. Arabic, with its infusion of words from surrounding cultures, has a vast vocabulary, providing a range of virtual synonyms and almost unlimited access to rhyme words. Its clauses are characteristically attached rather than subordinated to one another, and sentences resemble an accumulation of wavelets rather than the sound of single breakers. Assonance and rhyme duplicate sounds, and the strength of the linguistic effect these produce derives characteristically from repetition rather than innovation.

In Arabic popular literature, this effect is designed to mesmerize the audience by the use of rhythm and sound, adapted to a pace that is deliberately slow. The hypnotized listeners are not encouraged to look forward or back, but to immerse themselves in the reciter’s present. By contrast, a reader not only can assimilate more words in a given space of time, but he is in control of his own pages and can look wherever he wants. For example, more often than not, characters of the Nights are introduced with their full names and descriptions whenever they occur—A son of B, the king of C, and so on. For identification the reader will find this unnecessary, as, even if he has forgotten to whom a name refers, he can look back and find out. Similarly, one of the main effects of rhymed prose, as well as the introduction of poetry, is not only its direct appeal to the ear but its ability to slow down the pace of the narrative, the opposite of what is attempted here.

The translators Richard Burton and Enno Littmann have shown in their versions of the Nights that it is by no means impossible to reproduce the element of rhyme, but whether this helps to duplicate the mesmeric force of the original is more doubtful, and in the present translation no such attempt has been made. Here the object has been to speed up the pace of the narrative to what is hoped to be more nearly adapted to the eye rather than the ear of the modern reader. In no case has the sense been deliberately falsified, but, where possible, its presentation has been simplified and accelerated. This does not apply to the poetry, which some translators have curtailed, thinking it inessential. It does, however, form so important a part of the reciters’ presentation that it has been included in full, although no attempt has been made to risk further distortion by imposing on the English version rhyme schemes omnipresent in Arabic.

What has been sacrificed is the decorative elaboration of the original, as well as the extra dimension of allusiveness that it provides. In the latter case, it is not merely that one incident will recall another, either within the Nights themselves or, more widely, in the huge corpus of Arabic popular literature, but a single phrase, one description or one line of poetry must have served to call other contexts to the mind of the original audience. To explore these intricacies, however, is the task of a commentary rather than of a translation.

Beneath the elaboration of the text are fundamental patterns of the genre of storytelling. Not only are these responsible for the basic structure of the Nights but it is they that serve to underline the importance of the work, firstly as an immediate source of popular literature and, more generally, in the universal history of storytelling. It is these patterns that, it is hoped, this translation will help to make more accessible.

In any English version, the transliteration of Arabic names and words presents familiar problems. Here it has been decided not to enter in most cases the diacritical markings that distinguish matching consonants as well as long and short vowels. For Arabists these are unnecessary and for the general reader they may be thought to add confusion rather than clarity. Similarly, on a more restricted point, academic rectitude suggests that in many cases y should be used in place of i, as in the case of Zayd for Zaid, but here i has been preferred throughout as appearing simpler and less exotic.