This discussion of the 1001 Nights grew out of a question I received via email.

What edition of the 1001 Nights is the best one? Which one has all 1001 stories in it?

I have four books (or sets of books) of the Arabian Nights/1001 Nights: an English translation from 1937 of an older French translation, Sir Richard Burton's Victorian English translation, and two volumes translated by Hussan Haddawy. Complete info about these books is available in this section of my book list.

The first thing to remember about all collections of the 1001 Nights is that they are collections, so content will vary from edition to edition.
The second thing to remember is that, unless you read these in Arabic or Farsi, you are reading a translation of the collection, which removes you at least one step from the original stories.

The following paragraph of information is paraphrased from Mr. Haddawy's introduction to 'The Arabian Nights'.
The stories in the Nights evolved from oral tradition, and so were told over and over again before they were ever written down. 10th century Arabic writings mention many collections of tales. They mention an Arabic collection called the Thousand Tales, which was a translation of a Persian work called A Thousand Legends. Many manuscript versions circulated, until the second half of the 13th century, when a Syrian version was written. That version was lost, but it spawned many similar collections. These subsequent collections fall into two categories: Syrian and Egyptian.
The 14th century Syrian manuscript forms the basis for Haddawy's 'The Arabian Nights'.

So, you see there have existed for many centuries many versions of a collection called 1001 Nights, or The Arabian Nights, or The Thousand Nights and One, etc.
Many of these collections did not contain exactly 1001 tales, so whoever copied the manuscript might add a few of his favorite tales, fables, or parables, in an effort to make up the right number.

The common factor that unites all collections into versions with the same basic origin is the framing element of king Shahrayar and Shahrazad - and her efforts to stay her execution by drawing out her story-telling for 1001 nights.

The story of the various editions gets even weirder when you get to printed, published European language versions. (More info from Haddawy's introduction). A version printed in Calcutta in 1814 - of the first 200 nights was made from a late (18th century?) Syrian version of the Tales and a work of classical literature. Haddawy feels that this does not represent the original work very well, mostly because it was a combination of two disparate sources, and the translator edited and deleted to suit his own tastes.
Then a couple of Germans edited/translated a version based on the 14th century Syrian manuscript and several late Egyptian ones. These fellows also edited the stories to suit their own tastes.

This kind of editing/translating happened over and over again, distorting the original intent/cultural content of the tales.

So, after all that rambling, this is the process I would suggest to find a version of the 1001 Nights that you like.

Start with Haddawy's 14th century version, to get a historical perspective. This book will also give you a very complete picture of the various translation/editions. Then browse as many of the larger collections of 1001 Nights as you can locate, and pick the one that you like the best!

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Last revised November 8th., 2007. Comments to: E. A. Young