Antoine Galland (1646-1715) was a French orientalist and classic scholar, who became famous for his translation of the Thousand and one nights, the first translation ever, published between 1704-1717 in 12/14 volumes. This translation, Les mille et une nuit, was soon re-translated in other European languages (English (1712?); German (1706); Dutch (1719-1724); Italian (1722); Danish (1745); Greek (1757-1762); Russian (1763-1771) and became the foundation of the European tradition of the Thousand and one nights and the entry of the work into world-literature. Galland’s translation appealed to a wide and varied audience and resulted in an orientalist vogue in literature which continued throughout the 18th century and has remained a structural phenomenon in European literature until the present day. Antoine Galland was born in 1646 in a provincial town in northern France. After moving to Paris to study Oriental languages, he had the opportunity to travel to the Levant in 1670 with a diplomatic mission to renew the French Capitulations with the Ottoman Empire. After his return in 1675, other journeys followed, which took him to Greece, Egypt, Palestine and, especially, Smyrna and Constantinople, where he stayed for a period of, in total, ten years. During these stays he collected antiquities, coins and manuscripts for the Bibliothèque Royale, but he also wrote two accounts which give a valuable insight in the book-markets of Constantinople and, especially, life in Smyrna in the 1680s. He also perfected his knowledge of Arabic, Turkish and Persian. Back in France, he was at first unable to find an academic position. He worked as the custodian of a private collection of coins, wrote some treatises and co-edited the famous Bibliothèque orientale, the ambitious encyclopaedia of the Orient compiled by Barthélemy d’Herbelot, and after his death completed by Galland. This work, which was published in 1697, was to have an enormous influence on European scholars and literati throughout the 18th century. In 1701 Galland was admitted as a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres, the prestigious platform for scholars, and in 1709 he was finally awarded the chair of Oriental languages at the Collège de France, through the intercession of the important scholar Abbé de Bignon, head of the Académie and later of the Bibliothèque Royale, who remained Galland’s lifelong mentor and patron in his scholarly pursuits. This position enabled Galland to work relatively comfortably for the remaining years of his life. In this period he continued to work on numismatics, but he also completed a translation of the Qur’an, on the request of Abbé de Bignon. Unfortunately, the manuscript disappeared after Galland’s death, although it may still be preserved somewhere. Most of these scholarly efforts are eclipsed by the undertaking which eternalized Galland’s name: the translation of the Thousand and one nights. In August 1702, in a letter to his Dutch friend in the Republic of Letters Gijsbert Cuper, Galland mentions that he has begun translating a collection of, as he called it, ‘contes arabes’, adding the first description of the Thousand and one nights in the European cultural domain. In his letters and journals we can follow the progress of the work quite precisely: when he finished a volume and when he started with a new one, when the texts were revised and sent to the publisher, responses by the public, etc. What remains mysterious to some extent, is Galland’s own personal relationship with the work. Most of his remarks on the huge undertaking are somewhat grumbling: He complains that the work is tedious and time-consuming; that his scholarly work is appreciated less than the rather futile tales; that the translation keeps him from doing more serious work, etc. On the other hand, however, he seems quite eager in his letters and journal to report on the undertaking and to know his correspondent’s – Cuper’s – opinion of the work. Curiously, he does not send him a copy of his translation, but he seems pleased to hear that Cuper promises to buy a copy as soon as it appears on the Dutch market, and, later, to receive his compliments. Galland’s Mille et une nuit became the foundation of what may be called the European tradition of the Thousand and one nights, and, subsequently, its iconization within world culture. The French version was soon re-translated into the major European languages and became the quintessential example not only of Oriental storytelling, but also of the cultural interaction between Europe and the Arab world, or, more specifically, the Orient, as an imaginary realm. Because of its huge impact, it is the more interesting to consider the way in which it was conceived, or, perhaps more correctly, compiled. For his translation, Galland used a manuscript which was sent to him from Aleppo and which contained 282 nights, suggesting that the text was incomplete. Since the translation was such a success and his publisher pressed him to produce more tales, Galland supplemented this text with similar material from other sources, especially manuscripts kept in the Royal Library. Intriguingly, in 1709 he was introduced to a young Syrian named Hanna Diyab, who volunteered to tell him ‘the stories he knew’. Even after the publication of Diyab’s account of his journey, in which he mentions his meeting with Galland, it is uncertain if Diyab knew the Thousand and one nights and if he considered his stories as a part of it. This is not very likely, because in his account, which was written many years later, in 1766, when Galland and his translation had become famous, he does not seem to be aware of its importance. Whatever may have been the true circumstances of this episode, Galland incorporated this material, which included ‘Aladdin and the magic lamp’ and ‘Ali Baba and the forty thieves’, into his Mille et une nuits. What is more, the publisher, impatiently, added stories from a Turkish source which were sent to him by Galland’s colleague Pétis de la Croix, without notifying Galland. In this way a rather haphazard and hybrid collection emerged consisting of various kinds of material. In modern times, Galland was both criticized and praised for this rather inconsistent procedure. Some critics describe him as the ‘inventor’ of the Thousand and one nights, transforming a mediocre work of Arabic literature into a masterpiece of French literature, casually paving the way for the great Enlightenment authors. Others have denounced his methods and his translation as a clear example of orientalist falsification, not only distorting the original text with imprecise translations, but also creating a new text which accommodated to the contemporary prejudices in Europe about the Orient. Whatever opinion was correct, the European audience relished Galland’s stories, and countless authors exploited them as a major source of inspiration for their own work, ranging from Diderot and Voltaire, Proust and Joyce to Màrquez, Rushdie and Murakami. Numerous reprints have appeared, together with anthologies, reworkings, pastiches, adaptations, etc., until the present day. Dozens of films have been made based on the stories, marking Shahrazad’s appearance in visual culture. In brief, a world without the Thousand and one nights can no longer be imagined. To conclude, the appreciation of Galland’s work has grown in recent years. Research has shown that his translation is quite accurate, particularly for the standards of the 18th century; the hybridity of the Mille et une nuits was not dissonant with literary customs at the time and does not devalue the work, but rather makes it the more interesting as an object which bears the marks of a cultural transition. This hybridity indicates the many ingrained values which are related to such a cultural transition and which are accumulated within it as a container in which various historical and cultural trajectories converge. It is this cultural and historical content which has given the Thousand and one nights such an enormous cultural potential, which is still not extinguished in our times. Acknowledging this implies a reappraisal of the stature of Galland, who was not only a scholar, or a translator, but a cultural intermediary who co-shaped the zones of transmission in which cultural exchanges took place. Today’s interest in the Thousand and one nights proves that Galland’s legacy is still as alive as ever.
Our anthology includes the beginning of the Mille et une nuit, with the framing story and the first series of stories, and two of the ‘orphan stories’, one provided by Hanna Diyab and one contributed by Pétis de la Croix. The ‘orphan stories’ are ‘Histoire d’Aladin, ou la lampe merveilleuse’, ‘Les aventures du calife Haroun-al-Raschid’, ‘Histoire de l’aveugle Baba Abdalla’, Histoire de Sidi Nouman’, ‘Histoire de Cogia Hassan Alhabbal’, ‘Histoire d’Ali Baba et de quarante voleurs exterminés par une esclave’, ‘Histoire d’Ali Cogia, marchand de Bagdad’, ‘Histoire du prince Ahmed et de la fée Pari-Banou’, and ‘Histoire des deux soeurs jalousies de leur cadette’. The stories added by Pétis de la Croix are: ‘Histoire du prince Zeyn al-Asnam’, ‘Histoire de Codadad’, ‘Histoire de la princesse Daryabar’.
Frédéric Bauden/ Richard Waller (eds.), Le journal d’Antoine Galland (1646-1715), 4 vols., Peeters, Leuven etc. 2011-2016
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Antoine Galland, Les paroles remarquables, les bonmots et les maxims des Orientaux, Maisonneuve & Larose, Paris 1999.
Henry Laurens, Aux sources de l’orientalisme; la Bibliothèquwe orientale de Barthélemy d’Herbelot, Maisonneuve & Larose, Paris 1978.