Tales from the Arabic

1883–12 September, 1885

In Burton’s next letter to Payne, 15 January, 1883141, there is more about the Kama Shastra Society. He seems to have forgotten that he had previously mentioned it, for he says of Arbuthnot: “He and I and the Printer have started a Hindu Kama Shastra (Ars Amoris) Society. It will make the British Public stare. Please encourage him.”

On 23 January, 1883, he writes (with his tongue in his cheek) respecting his copy of Payne’s Villon: “Almost ashamed to keep Villon​—​private copy. Mrs. B[urton] easily appeased. It is a queer fish; the more I know him, the less I know of him.”

On 12 May, when returning portions of Payne’s proofs of the Nights, he says142: “You are ‘drawing it very mild.’ Has there been any unpleasantness about plain speaking? Poor Abu Hasan is (as it were) castrated. I should say ‘Be bold’ (Audace, etc.) only you know better than I how far you can go and cannot go. I should simply translate every word.”

On 22 May he touches again on certain subjects, the manner of the dealing with which marks one of the great differences between his own and Payne’s translation. He says: “Unfortunately it is these offences against nature (which come so naturally in Greece and Persia, and which belong strictly to their fervid age) that give the book so much of its ethnological value.” He then refers to a paper which he had written, showing the geographical limits of these offences, and he makes a diagram of trumpet shape​—​“a broad band across Europe and Asia, widening out into China and embracing all [aboriginal143] America.”

Portugal N. Africa S. France Italy Greece Turkey144 Persia Cashmere China America Magellan Behring

“Curious, is it not? Beyond the limits the practice is purely sporadic, within them endemic. I shall publish it some day and surprise the world.

“I don’t live in England and I don’t care a damn for public opinion. I would rather tread on Mrs. Grundy’s pet corn than not. She may howl on her * * * * * * to her heart’s content.”

In his letter145 to Payne146 of 1 October, 1883, Burton again puts in a plea for literalism. He says: “What I meant by literalism is literally translating each noun (in the long lists which so often occur) in its turn, so that the student can use the translation. I hold the Nights the best of class books, and when a man knows it he can get on with Arabs everywhere.” Payne, however, had an entirely different object in view. His desire was to produce a classic, and he succeeded.

Early in 1884 the ninth and last volume of Payne’s Arabian Nights was in the hands of his subscribers. The price of the work was nine guineas. Imagining that the demand for so expensive a work would not be large, Payne limited himself to the publication of only 500 copies. The demand exceeded 2,000, so 1,500 persons were disappointed.

Burton being, as always, purse-pinched, felt deeply for these 1,500 disappointed subscribers, who were holding out their nine-guinea cheques, with nobody to take the money. Oh, what a calamity!

“Do you object to my making an entirely new translation?” he asked.

To which, of course, Payne replied that he could have no objection whatever. So Burton then set to work, hot-hand. In a letter to Payne of 20 June, 1884,147 he said: “The more I examine your translation the more I like it,” and on 12 August, 1884,148 he gave an idea of his own plan. He said: “I am going in for notes where they did not suit your scheme, and shall make the book a perfect répertoire of Eastern knowledge in its most esoteric form.”

Although, as we have seen, Burton’s service to Payne’s translation was but trifling, Burton was to Payne in another way a tower of strength. Professional spite, jealousy, and other causes had ranged against his Nights quite an army of men of more or less weight, including the group who for various reasons made it their business to cry up the wooden and common-place translation of E. W. Lane. Burton, who had for long been spoiling for a fight, fell upon the Laneites like Samson upon the Philistines. He smote them hip and thigh, he gloried in the tumult, he wallowed in blood. But though the battle was hot while it lasted it was soon over, and the cowed Laneites subsided into silence.

In March 1884 Payne was residing at 5 Lansdowne Place, Brunswick Square, and on the 23rd of that month De Banville wrote to him as follows: “I am delighted at the success of your Nights. Vitu is going to publish a very curious volume which he will send you. It is the fruit of many years’ work: his study of the jargon of Villon. I congratulate you, my dear friend, on your dauntless courage. I can see that you are going to carry out successfully a prodigious undertaking and to proffer to your countrymen a priceless gift.”

The letters of Hawkins-Payne to his son Harry, who in June 1884 went up to London to study the law under the aegis of John, with whom he resided at 5 Lansdowne Place, give interesting glimpses both of the old folks at the lone Shrubhill House, and the two brothers in seething London.

On 17 June, Hawkins-Payne is not surprised that the New Law Courts puzzle Harry. It is difficult to know one’s way about them. Then follows a passage which shows that the father had already heard of his eldest son’s growing fame. He says: “I ’spose John is quite aware of the notice of the ‘Villon Society’s’ Arabian Nights in the Bath Herald’s London letter of 14th inst.”

In the next letter (19 June, 1884) is a charming touch​—​the old, old story of the boys away from home not satisfying the old folks’ insatiable appetite for letters. “Don’t leave us without a line or two at least once a week. You see we really do feel some interest in your goings on, and neither John nor Willy ever thinks us old ones at home worth a line​—​except under compulsion.” After John’s name is a cross in pencil, and below, also in pencil, and in the handwriting of the mother always ready to thrust her gentle figure as a barrier between John and his father​—​“That’s a mistake, B.P.”

Fan (Frances) works for Harry a pair of slippers, and Hawkins-Payne on 21 June (it is his birthday, and he is 71) sends a bath (being surprised that John did not provide one). “Then wash and be clean,” is the admonition, “only use no hot water for a while lest it blister off the freshly enamelled surface. Mum doesn’t think you will find once a week too great a strain on your filial pen.” On 7 July all John’s brothers and sisters were in London. “Only think,” writes the father, “of all six of you being in town at once.” On 18 July, he writes (though he is troubled with rheumatism): “Glad to hear that you are now really sticking to business and are getting on comfortably with your brother, all of which tends, you may be sure, to make the old folks happier than the condition of health of one of us at least would have led us to hope for.” The letter of 11 August, 1884, indicates whence John got his vein of humour. “Dear Mum, in telling a wasp a bit of her mind on Friday, squashed a pane of glass as well as the stinger and cut her hand rather badly​—​the right hand, too, which was not altogether judicious.” From the next letter we learn that John was away for a holiday, and Harry is commiserated: “Poor lonely one left to pine on the stem! (for stem read office-stool).” But in a fortnight he, too, was free.

Hawkins-Payne died on 2 November, 1884.

This same year Payne issued new editions of three of his works​—​The Masque of Shadows, Songs of Life and Death, and New Poems.

In the Breslau Text of the Nights and in the Calcutta fragment of 1814 are a number of stories that do not rightly belong to the series of the Nights proper; but most of them are popular tales, and Payne, having finished his earlier task, now set himself to translate them also. They were eventually published in three volumes in 1884 with the title of Tales from the Arabic.

Many parts of the original texts, especially the Breslau, are hopelessly corrupt, and would have daunted a less indomitable translator than Payne. They required, indeed, in Burton’s words, a diviner rather than a translator, and in Payne they found one. Perhaps the best known of these stories are “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri Banu.” The remarks already made on the various merits of Payne’s translation and Burton’s translation of the Nights apply also to Tales from the Arabic, which Burton issued with the title of Supplemental Nights.

Among the stories included in Galland’s Arabian Nights were “Alaeddin or the Wonderful Lamp” and “Zein ul Asnam,” but Payne had not included them in his Tales from the Arabic because no Arabic original could be found. Indeed, many persons regarded them as Galland’s own composition. Just after, however, the appearance of Payne’s Tales from the Arabic, M. Zotenberg of Paris discovered a MS. copy of the Nights containing the Arabic originals of both, and Payne, thanks to the courtesy of Zotenberg, was able to make use of it. He published his translation of the two tales in 1885 with the title of Alaeddin or the Wonderful Lamp; Zein ul Asnam and the King of the Genii.

Among those who perused with delight Payne’s volume was M. Zotenberg himself, who in a letter to Payne says: “Now I have read it through, and understand its value. I don’t want to offer you a commonplace compliment, but I must be permitted to observe that it is not enough to sum you up as a poet and a stylest, for this work reveals also the profound scholar and the erudite Arabist.”

Of the success of Payne’s Villon we have already spoken. In the meantime Mr. Granger Hutt had died and Mr. Alfred Forman took his place as secretary of the Villon Society. In subsequent prospectuses the name of Mr. Wheatley was also omitted; and Mr. Forman occupied the post of secretary during the rest of Payne’s life.

In 1885 Payne, Max Eberstadt, Mrs. Lewis and others visited Germany, and among other places Heidelburg and Bayreuth, where they met Wagner, with whom Mrs. Lewis had previously been on terms of friendship.

Having finished the Nights and the supplementary volumes Payne commenced a translation of the Decameron, but in accordance with his custom he kept the matter a secret till his work was in the press.

From May 1885 to February 1886 Burton was again in England, and he and Payne often met. “I think,” said Burton, on one occasion, “when I have finished the Nights I shall translate Boccaccio.”

“My dear boy,” said Payne, “I’ve already done him, and my book is in the press.”

“You are taking the bread out of my mouth,” commented Burton, plaintively.

“But,” continued Payne, “there is another work that I thought of doing​—​the Pentameron of Basile, and if you care to take my place I will not only stand aside, but lend you the materials collected for the purpose.”

Burton, who was not aware of the existence of the Pentameron149 until Payne told him, welcomed the idea, and in due course commenced and finished the translation,150 but Payne insisted that Burton’s work “is a poor, crude, lifeless performance,” and he resolved, though he was unable to carry out his intention, to make a translation of it himself after all.151

Burton’s translation of the Nights left the press 12 September, 1885. In the Foreword to this work and elsewhere Burton paid many compliments to Payne’s translation, but he did not go far enough, for, as Payne was in time to discover, and as any reader can judge for himself by comparing the two translations, Burton’s version was in the early portion largely a paraphrase of Payne’s, and in the latter simply Payne’s altered and spoilt. Consequently Burton was able to get done in two very broken years, and with several other books in hand, work that had occupied Payne six years without cessation (1876–1882). In my Life of Sir Richard Burton, I have given a number of parallel passages in order to show to what an enormous extent Burton drew upon Payne. I might, however, have made my case far stronger, for as Burton’s translation proceeded he became so indolent that he copied whole pages from Payne​—​merely altering one or two words.

To sum up: (1) Burton’s translation is largely a paraphrase of Payne’s. He takes thousands of sentences from Payne, often without altering a single word.

(2) Where there are differences Payne’s version is invariably the clearer, finer and more stately of the two.

(3) Payne’s translation of the poetry in the Nights, with its musical subtleties and choice phrases, such as “The thought of God to him his very housemate is,” is a delight to the ear and an enchantment of the sense. Burton’s verse is mere doggerel. To give only one instance, how bewitchingly Payne translates that metrical outburst in Vol. 1, respecting the slender and dazzlingly beautiful young lady who was carried in a coffer of glass:

She shines out in the dusk, and lo! the day is here,

And all the trees flower forth with blossoms bright and clear,

The sun from out her brows arises, and the moon,

When she unveils her face, doth hide for shame and fear.

The following is Burton’s precious rendering:

She rose like the morn as she shone through the night,

And she gilded the grove with her gracious sight:

From her radiance the sun taketh increase, when

She unveileth and shameth the moonshine bright.

But comparison of any other passages would reveal just as well Burton’s fatuity152 and Payne’s splendour.

(4) Burton spoils his version by the introduction of ugly or uncouth words and phrases drawn from old writers, such as “swevens” (dreams) and “gar me dree.” Moreover his translation was done in a tremendous hurry. Payne often said that Burton used words incorrectly, instancing for example Burton’s employment of the word “purfled” as a synonym for “embroidered,” and contended that he could furnish scores of examples of Burton’s inaccurate use of archaic words. Indeed Burton, a magnificent man of action, had, in Payne’s opinion, scarcely any merits as a writer. Finer, more sparkling, more correct English than Payne’s no man has ever written.

Burton’s edition had one great speciality​—​his notes, which are largely pornographic, and it is for these notes and these notes alone that the student will turn to Burton’s volumes. In Burton’s own words, “Payne’s admirable version appeals to the orientalist and the stylist, mine to the anthropologist and student of Eastern manners and customs.”

By scholars, Payne’s Arabian Nights was everywhere received with acclamation; and its merits were ultimately recognized by the Press, the most appreciative notice being that in the Edinburgh Review, July 1886.

At a bound Payne had placed himself in the front rank of English translators. His name will go down to posterity along with the honoured names of North, Adlington and the other splendid Elizabethans.

That being the case, his remarks on translation generally are peculiarly valuable. “From my own experience,” he says, “I cannot recommend to a young man wishing to form for himself ‘a forcible and interesting style of expression’ (in so far, that is, as it is possible to acquire such a gift) a better course than the intimate study and analysis of and translation from other languages than his own. This he will find will not only enlarge his vocabulary beyond belief, but will familiarize him with many and various ways of expressing familiar ideas; and this gives him command of the most urgent requisites of style​—​the avoidance of repetition and the power or means of expressing the eternal commonplaces which form the basis of literature and life in a new and, therefore, a striking manner.”

The marginal notes pencilled by Payne in the manuscript of my life of Burton are very numerous and illuminative. The following are a few:

In chapter 29 (Vol. 2) I said in a passage, afterwards omitted, that Burton’s doctrine “is that everything should be studied, everything should be talked about,” etc. Payne comments: “Technical knowledge of evil things in the proper place and for the proper purposes is a very different thing from the general rubbing of noses in the sewage of depravity as Burton proposes.”

By the side of a passage in which I speak of Payne’s own style he pencilled: “My antique style is the result of assimilation not imitation, arrived at from the inside not the outside. The Authorized Version I feel has had more influence on my prose style than any other book, and I have so loved and studied it from boyhood that I have assimilated its processes and learned the secrets of the interior mechanism of its style. Dante also, whose Divina Commedia is one of the four books (the others being the Bible, Shakespeare and Heine’s Poems with which I am supersaturated) has also had an immense influence on my style, both in prose and verse.”

In the place where I quote Burton as saying that his scheme was “to translate literally each noun (in the long lists which so often occur) in its turn, so that the student can use the translation,” Payne underscored the eight concluding words and pencilled in the margin: “This formed no part of my scheme, in fact was directly opposed to the spirit of my work, which was to make the translation, whilst quite sufficiently faithful to the original, a monument of noble English prose and verse.”

In Vol. 2, page 14, I put in parallel columns Payne’s and Burton’s translations of the poem in the Nights which commences “Renouncement, lowliness, the faker’s garments be” (Payne v. 51, Burton v. 294). Payne pencilled: “This piece is characteristic of the difference between the two translations. Burton says of it “It is sad doggerel,” and so it is in his version; but I signal it as one of the finest pieces of verse in the Nights. As a piece of devotional poetry I think it worthy of Vaughan or Christina Rossetti.153

Opposite my remarks on Burton’s religion Payne wrote: “If anything he was a Mohammedan, Islam being the only practical moral and ethical religion. Ideal religions, such as that of the Vedanta, were beyond his scope; he was like the Jews and had no ideality in his composition.”

Once, in conversation with Payne, I said to him: “Your Nights stirred up a rare nest of hornets.”

“Yes,” he said, “and to give you an idea of their unscrupulousness one of them​—​Professor Robertson Smith154​—​put it about that my translation was made not direct from the Arabic but from German translations​—​an amazing display of ignorance, seeing that there were no German translations with the exception of the wearisome garbled and incomplete version of Dr. Weil.”

T. W. How did you deal with him?

P. I sent him the following words from the Nights, written in the Arabic character: “I and thou and the slanderer, there shall be for us an awful day and a place of standing up to judgment.” After this he sheathed his sword, and the Villon Society heard no more of him.

Payne was, indeed, a terrible fighter. For every particular adversary he had a peculiar weapon. I remember that he referred to another who attacked him as “a sour pedant.”

In Vol. 2, p. 137, opposite my reference to the Sindbad story, Payne wrote: “Important to show this. Burton allowed that in all other respects my translation was thoroughly literal, but I could never get him to understand my objection to filth for filth’s sake, altogether apart from all question of prudery. He himself had ‘a romantic passion’ for it. Burton’s erudition, though immense as a matter of mere bulk, was, I am afraid, largely pinchbeck, it altogether lacked exactitude.

“Burton seemed to me to have, like Holofernes, been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps. So in every branch where I was qualified to judge. He was a man of action, not of thought or study in the true sense.”

It appears that about this time Ruskin showed himself hostile to Payne’s Translation of the Nights, for Burton in a letter of 15 January, 1886, wrote: “One line to say how much I am disgusted with the way in which Ruskin depreciated your translation. … However, I suppose you will take no notice of it.”

In February 1886 Burton was made a K.C.M.G.

[141] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 16.

[142] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 18.

[143] I cannot read this word, but evidently it is a word of some such meaning as aboriginal.

[144] It will be understood that by Turkey Burton also meant Bulgaria and other states then under Turkish control. The reader may care to compare Burton’s remarks in this letter with Payne’s reference to the Bulgarians in his savage sonnet “Turk and Slav.”

[145] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 21.

[146] Payne had just returned from a tour in Holland.

[147] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 28.

[148] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 29.

[149] Payne told me this at our first interview.

[150] It appeared in 2 vols. in 1893.

[151] Payne announced this translation at the end of the Hafiz, 1901.

[152] As a writer of verse, of course.

[153] See my Life of Burton, Vol. 2, p. 117.

[154] Burton’s comment was, “Men who have been persecuted often in their turn become persecutors.”