The present is, I believe, the first complete translation of the great Arabic compendium of romantic fiction that has been attempted in any European language comprising about four times as much matter as that of Galland and three times as much as that of any other translator known to myself; and a short statement of the sources from which it is derived may therefore be acceptable to my readers. Three printed editions, more or less complete, exist of the Arabic text of the Thousand and One Nights; namely, those of Breslau, Boulac (Cairo) and Calcutta (1839), besides an incomplete one, comprising the first two hundred nights only, published at Calcutta in 1814. Of these, the first is horribly corrupt and greatly inferior, both in style and completeness, to the others, and the second (that of Boulac) is also, though in a far less degree, incomplete, whole stories (as, for instance, that of the Envier and the Envied in the present volume) being omitted and hiatuses, varying in extent from a few lines to several pages, being of frequent occurrence, whilst in addition to these defects, the editor, a learned Egyptian, has played havoc with the style of his original, in an ill-judged attempt to improve it, producing a medley, more curious than edifying, of classical and semi-modern diction and now and then, in his unlucky zeal, completely disguising the pristine meaning of certain passages. The third edition, that which we owe to Sir William Macnaghten and which appears to have been printed from a superior copy of the manuscript followed by the Egyptian editor, is by far the most carefully printed and edited of the three and offers, on the whole, the least corrupt and most comprehensive text of the work. I have therefore adopted it as my standard or basis of translation and have, to the best of my power, remedied the defects (such as hiatuses, misprints, doubtful or corrupt passages, etc.) which are of no infrequent occurrence even in this, the best of the existing texts, by carefully collating it with the editions of Boulac and Breslau (to say nothing of occasional references to the earlier Calcutta edition of the first two hundred nights), adopting from one and the other such variants, additions and corrections as seemed to me best calculated to improve the general effect and most homogeneous with the general spirit of the work, and this so freely that the present version may be said, in great part, to represent a variorum text of the original, formed by a collation of the different printed texts; and no proper estimate can, therefore, be made of the fidelity of the translation, except by those who are intimately acquainted with the whole of these latter. Even with the help of the new lights gained by the laborious process of collation and comparison above mentioned, the exact sense of many passages must still remain doubtful, so corrupt are the extant texts and so incomplete our knowledge, as incorporated in dictionaries, etc, of the peculiar dialect, half classical and half modern, in which the original work is written.
One special feature of the present version is the appearance, for the first time, in English metrical shape, preserving the external form and rhyme movement of the originals, of the whole of the poetry with which the Arabic text is so freely interspersed. This great body of verse, equivalent to at least ten thousand twelve-syllable English lines, is of the most unequal quality, varying from poetry worthy of the name to the merest doggrel, and as I have, in pursuance of my original scheme, elected to translate everything, good and bad (with a very few exceptions in cases of manifest mistake or misapplication), I can only hope that my readers will, in judging of my success, take into consideration the enormous difficulties with which I have had to contend and look with indulgence upon my efforts to render, under unusually irksome conditions, the energy and beauty of the original, where these qualities exist, and in their absence, to keep my version from degenerating into absolute doggrel.
The present translation being intended as a purely literary work produced with the sole object of supplying the general body of cultivated readers with a fairly representative and characteristic version of the most famous work of narrative fiction in existence, I have deemed it advisable to depart, in several particulars, from the various systems of transliteration of Oriental proper names followed by modern scholars, as, although doubtless admirably adapted to works having a scientific or non-literary object, they rest mainly upon devices (such as the use of apostrophes, accents, diacritical points and the employment of both vowels and consonants in unusual groups and senses) foreign to the genius of the English language and calculated only to annoy the reader of a work of imagination. Of these points of departure from established usage I need only particularize some of the more important; the others will, in general, be found to speak for themselves. One of the most salient is the case of the short vowel fet-heh, which is usually written , but which I have thought it better to render, as a rule, by , as in "bed" (a sound practically equivalent to that of a, as in "beggar," adopted by the late Mr. Lane to represent this vowel), reserving the English a, as in "father," to represent the alif of prolongation or long Arabic a, since I should else have no means of differentiating the latter from the former, save by the use of accents or other clumsy expedients, at once, to my mind, foreign to the purpose and vexatious to the reader of a work of pure literature. In like manner, I have eschewed the use of the letter q, as an equivalent for the dotted or guttural kaf (choosing to run the risk of occasionally misleading the reader as to the original Arabic form of a word by leaving him in ignorance whether the k used is the dotted or undotted one,--a point of no importance whatever to the non-scientific public,--rather than employ an English letter in a manner completely unwarranted by the construction of our language, in which q has no power as a terminal or as moved by any vowel other than u, followed by one of the four others) and have supplied its place, where the dotted kaf occurs as a terminal or as preceding a hard vowel, by the hard c, leaving k to represent it (in common with the undotted kaf generally) in those instances where it is followed by a soft vowel. For similar reasons, I have not attempted to render the Arabic quasi-consonant aïn, save by the English vowel corresponding to that by which it is moved, preferring to leave the guttural element of its sound (for which we have no approach to an equivalent in English) unrepresented, rather than resort to the barbarous and meaningless device of the apostrophe. Again, the principle, in accordance with which I have rendered the proper names of the original, is briefly (and subject to certain variations on the ground of convenience and literary fitness) to preserve unaltered such names as Tigris, Bassora, Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, etc., which are familiar to us otherwise than by the Arabian Nights and to alter which, for the sake of mere literality, were as gratuitous a piece of pedantry as to insist upon writing Copenhagen Kjobenhavn, or Canton Kouang-tong, and to transliterate the rest as nearly as may consist with a due regard to artistic considerations. The use of untranslated Arabic words, other than proper names, I have, as far as possible, avoided, rendering them, with very few exceptions, by the best English equivalents in my power, careful rather to give the general sense, where capable of being conveyed by reasonable substitution of idiom or otherwise, than to retain the strict letter at the expense of the spirit; nor, on the other hand, have I thought it necessary to alter the traditional manner of spelling certain words which have become incorporated with our language, where (as in the case of the words genie, houri, roe, khalif, vizier, cadi, Bedouin, etc. etc.) the English equivalent is fairly representative of the original Arabic.
I have to return my cordial thanks to Captain Richard F. Burton, the well-known traveller and author, who has most kindly undertaken to give me the benefit of his great practical knowledge of the language and customs of the Arabs in revising the manuscript of my translation for the press.