Spotlight on: Antoine Galland

There will never be a clean answer to the debate over fidelity and transparency in translation. On the one hand, the translated text must convey the meaning of the words from the source. Translators are supposed to write exactly what the source author wrote, no more and no less. However, being too literal in a translation can render the target text utterly unreadable. What is elegantly stated in French may seem flowery to the point of nonsense in English. Neither of these extremes does the original author any justice.

Literary translators, especially, grapple with this duality on a regular basis. Fiction is generally crafted with careful attention to diction, cadence, and other more subtle characteristics of the written language. Often these details are used to influence emotions in the reader—a quality which is perhaps more important than the exact words themselves. Romance, fear, pride, and other feelings are invoked by vastly differing events, depending on the reader’s cultural upbringing.

A translator may stray from a literally faithful translation in order to maintain a faithfulness to other aspects of the text. Stray far enough, and what you have is really an adaptation—not a translation. These renderings can be important to a literary work. Using adaptations rather than faithful translation of old Islamic tales were key in introducing the culture to the mainstream Western world.

Antoine Galland was born in Rollot, France in 1646. He learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew at a young age, which earned him an attachment to the embassy at Istanbul (then Constantinople) by 1670. While stationed in the Middle East, Galland traveled often and collected inscriptions, ancient coins, and a detailed knowledge of all things Islam. He was one of the French court’s most studious orientalists.

Galland is most famous for his translation of stories from the Thousand and One Nights. The stories, based on an old Syrian manuscript, were published in twelve volumes from 1704 through 1717 (the last was published posthumously). “Translation” is probably not the best word for his treatment of the texts—in order to reach a broader audience, Galland cut out many of the erotic scenes and all of the poetry in his French adaptation. Two of the stories, Aladdin and Ali Baba, are also known as the “orphan” stories; there is some debate as to whether Galland himself made them up! Nonetheless, these tales quickly became popular in Europe, and Galland’s translations (rather than the original source) were used as the basis for the contemporary English, German, Italian, Russian, and Dutch versions.

What do you think of Galland’s translation decisions? Would you have done the same?

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