Paulo Lomas Horta in ‘Marvellous Thieves’ introduces the poets, scholars, pilgrims and charlatans who made unacknowledged contributions to Arabian Nights.
Here’s an excerpt from the book.
On March 25, 1709, a visit by Antoine Galland to the Paris apartment of his friend Paul Lucas yielded a discovery that would shape the literary legacy of the first French translator of the Thousand and One
Nights. Lucas, a collector of treasures for the court of Louis XIV, was well known for his travels in the Middle East, and his apartment was recognized as one of the marvels of the French capital. Listed in early eighteenth- century guidebooks as a place to view antiquities and other rare objects from Greece, Egypt, and Asia Minor, it drew scholars, collectors, and curiosity seekers of all kinds. Over the course of his journeys in the Mediterranean and the Ottoman Empire, Lucas had amassed enough medallions, coins, engraved stones, and gems to fill six rooms.
The herbier in his apartment contained some 3,000 varieties of plants taken from foreign locations, and the droguier was equally impressive. One visitor to the apartment in the 1730s described a remarkable sculpture of the goddess Ceres that Lucas had acquired in Athens forty years earlier. Ten feet tall, the figure was made of Oriental jasper and plated with bronze, and in Paris she enjoyed the company of many other bronzes from Greece, Macedonia, and the Levant, as well as two Persian sculptures of nude sages at prayer. Among such historically valuable pieces, stranger artifacts were scattered: petrified mushrooms, seahorses, and mummified birds encased in bronze.
Arriving at this cabinet of curiosities in 1709, Galland found an even greater treasure awaiting him: a young Maronite traveller from Aleppo by the name of Hanna Diyab who, he reported, “[knew] some very beautiful Arabic tales.” While Lucas may have viewed Diyab as just another Oriental curiosity to be displayed at the French court, Galland saw in him a solution to a frustrating predicament. After translating all the stories in his incomplete Arabic manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights, Galland was in need of more, and he had now found a storyteller who could fill the gap. In a sequence of twelve meetings between May 5 and June 2, 1709, Diyab related sixteen fantastic stories to Galland, who chose to add ten of these to the final three volumes of his French version of the Arabian Nights. Th ese storytelling sessions were the origin of some of the most famous of the Arabian Nights tales— including “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri- Banu”— and represent a lasting contribution to a story collection that has taken its place in the canons of world literature.
It was not the first time that Galland had benefitted from the curiosities collected by Lucas. Despite his lack of respect for Lucas’s abilities as a scholar, Galland found his collection of coins very useful in his own numismatic research, and he tried to gain access to lists or drawings of these from common acquaintances when his younger colleague was unwilling to share. Just as Galland borrowed coins to add entries to his numismatic dictionary, he would borrow Diyab to add stories to his version of the Arabian Nights. Considering his impact on the first French edition of the Arabic story collection, the Syrian storyteller could be judged the most valuable curiosity Lucas ever brought back from the Levant.
Since the publication of Les mille et une nuits, Galland’s French version of the Arabian Nights, in twelve volumes from 1704 to 1717, Galland has been credited as the first “author” of the collection in European letters, and as a crucial contributor to the emergence of the “Oriental tale” in French. Not only did he translate the 282 nights of stories in his Arabic manuscript in elegant Parisian prose, but he is credited with making a more substantial contribution to the story collection by lovingly adopting and adapting the tales that he heard from Diyab in 1709.
These stories, called the “orphan tales” because (with one exception) they have no known Arabic manuscript source, are seen as central to Galland’s achievement as a translator of the Arabian Nights. In this portion of his story collection, Galland’s work was no longer simply translation or adaptation; it represented “creation.”
Jean- Paul Sermain, one of the editors of the most recent edition of Galland’s Les mille et une nuits (2004), states the case most persuasively. He argues that Galland, working from his sparse notes on Diyab’s oral per for mances, created tales of ordinary characters caught up in extraordinary predicaments. Drawing on French literary conventions, he invented dialogues and descriptions and gave narrative coherence to the tales. Characters were developed with more sympathy, and moral lessons were highlighted. In the hands of Galland, the orphan tales of Diyab spoke of the superiority of the hero of humble origins and the need to behave decently in difficult circumstances. To fill out his meager notes, the French translator drew on his scholarly knowledge and his own travels of the Orient to imagine the fabulous details of voyages, palaces, and magical objects. Sermain argues that these orphan
tales teach the reader how to read the Arabian Nights as a whole. In the space between the French fairy tale and the Arabic story cycle, Galland seemed to fashion a new genre— that of the “Oriental tale.”