08 June 2010
Readers vs critics
Too many times, literary critics have marginalized or ignored public opinion about literary works. Take Arabian Nights. Here is a comment on it from an Arabic scholar, who appears to say that the reason the work is popular is that it is read mainly in translation, thereby removing the mixing of languages in the original:
"THE Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah wa Laylah) is the only Arabic work that has become truly popular in the West. For centuries it was frowned upon by educated Arabs for its inelegant style and mixing of the classical and vernacular languages.
"The first written compilation of the stories was made in Iraq in the 10th century by al-Jahshiyari who added tales from local storytellers to an old Persian work, Hazar Afsana ('thousand tales'), which in turn contained some stories of Indian origin. The 'frame' story, in which Sharazad saves herself from execution at the hands of King Shahrayar with her endless supply of tales was borrowed from the Persian Afsana but probably originated in India. A similar device, which may also come unltimately from India, is found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron.
"The first Western translation was made in the early 18th century by Antoine Galland. His elegant French, coupled with some liberal editing, masked the flaws in the original and it became a huge success. He also added, from oral sources, several of the stories which later became most famous - including Ali Baba, Sindbad, and Aladdin.
"The Nights had a wide influence on European literary taste during the 18th and 19th centuries, when orientalism was fashionable. Examples include Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Zadiq, as well as the poetic works of Byron and Wordsworth.
"The three best-known translations in English are by Edward Lane (incomplete, but accurate and with a detailed commentary), John Payne (probably the best, but without a commentary) and Sir Richard Burton (which tries to reproduce the oriental flavour of the original).
"Although sometimes regarded as children's stories, the sexual content makes some of them unsuitable - though bowdlerised versions are available. Modern Arabic versions have also been amended to meet the stylistic demands of critics."
Is it time to democratize literary criticism? Is it time to finally remove the distinction between Literature and literature, High Culture and Low Culture, Literary Masterpieces and Airport Paperbacks? The majority may not always be right, but surely they must know something the minority (that's us!) may not know.