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A Thousand and One Nights

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Richard Burton’s foreignized translations of The Haroun Tales, in comparison with Malcolm Lyons’ domesticated translations of the same tell us that while the distinction between domestication and foreignization is certainly pertinent in some cases, features of both will always emerge in each text. The applicability of distinguishing between domestication and foreignization is also largely contingent upon the time period in which the text was published and the nature of the readers of each time period.

In The Haroun Tales, Lyons most prominent method of familiarizing his text he refrains from using cultural terminology. His substitution of “Allah” with “God” and “Hammam” with “Bath” are examples of this. This was done possibly with the intent of allowing his readers to relate more with the characters, since both “Allah” and “Hammam” are cultural terms of Islam, and “God” and “bath” are more general terms used in everyday language. In “The Mock Caliph” Burton’s intent of foreignizing the story can be seen throughout the text, for instance when he uses the phrase “prayer-carpet of yellow silk” while Lyons uses “rug of yellow silk”. Burton uses the phrase “lute of Hindu make” while Lyons uses “made by Indian craftsmen”. Burton describes the mock caliph to “rent his raiment to the very skirt” while Lyons describes him to “[tear] his robe down to its hem”. Lyons can be said to be evading culture-specific descriptions, and giving more familiar or recognizable imageries, which is his way of domesticating his text for his readers.

Despite these fairly operative features, the extent of Burton’s foreignization can be put under question. One way to perceive this is to scrutinize his portrayal of violence, which is essentially similar to that of Lyons. In the Mock Caliph when the false Caliph returns from having visited Lady Zubaidah, Lady Dunya is said to “[draw] up both her feet and [give him] a kick”. Similarly in Lyons, she “put her feet together and kicked [him]. Later when she decides to punish him, Both Lyons and Burton use the same phrase “they beat me on my ribs”. Other foreignizers like Mardrus provide a fair amount of graphic detail for this particular scene, including phrases like “beat me cruelly upon the most sensitive parts of my body” and “murderously lashed my private parts”. Since the content of the original text is unknown, comparison tells us that Burton seems to be wary of depicting a scene consisting of too much violence. As the principal characteristic of Victorian readers was sensitivity, this results in domestication of the text. Diminishing excessive violence from a scene can be seen as Burton’s way of eliminating the shock-value of his text. Since modern readers are more immune to such kind of vividness, it would thus be expected of Lyons to provide more explicit portrayals of violence seeing as his.
In this way, the degree of domestication that Lyons intended requires some scrutiny; a method of comparison is Burton and Lane’s portrayal of sexuality. Burton’s depictions are considerably explicit and harbor lust more prominently than love. The false caliph, for example, is said to “[have] a mind to enjoy her”, while in Lyons’ he “wanted to lie with her”. Burton describes him to have had a “lover’s privacy” of her and never had “a more delicious night”. Lyons instead chose to say that they were “alone as lovers” and the false caliph had never had “a sweeter night”. From this it can be noted that Lyons’ more gentle depictions visualize a respectful and loving relationship, while Burton’s focused on the lustful way the false caliph regarded his wife. This would be testimony to the foreignizing effect of Burton’s text considering the traditional and conservative nature of Victorian readers. His depiction of the false caliph’s relatively crude demeanor escalates the element of shock in the text. Furthermore, instances like when the false caliph “rubbed” his wife’s feet, while Lane’s “stroked” them, emphasize the more lustful connotations harbored by Burton’s description. Lyons’s version does not seem appropriate for his readers, once again considering the desensitized perception of readers over time. He detracts from domestication by withdrawing from sexual explicitness.

However this idea can be contradicted when considering the translators’ treatment of homosexuality. In “Abu Nowas and the three youths”, Burton seems to be more elusive in his homosexual references in comparison with Lyons. Lyons uses outright phrases like “fornicate” and “slip my penis between you” while Burton uses “have each other” and “shampooing my tool”. In Burton’s, Abu Nowas loved to “sport and make merry with fair boys” while in Lyons he was addicted to “taking pleasure with pretty boys”. In Lyons’ the boys were “seduced” by Abu Nowas but “beguiled” in Burton’s. Lyons therefore presents more transparent references to homosexuality, and more direct suggestions to sex and pleasure than does Burton. This is intriguing in that, retaining the fact that Victorian readers were generally conservative, he abstains from depicting a homosexual scene that is too vivid. Burton ultimately makes his text less foreign for his readers. Lyons on the other hand is on the opposite end of the spectrum as he does not restrain himself in homosexual references and descriptions. He can therefore be said to incline toward domestication as his readers are relatively desensitized to such phenomena. When regarding the presentation of the two translators’ texts, Burton’s inclusion of footnotes presents an interesting outcome. Including footnotes would appear as an attempt to increase comprehension of the text by giving explanation for words that break the cultural codes of the English language. Thus, although he does use these words and breaks this cultural code, he provides explanation for them. This brings us to question the extent to which he is foreignizing; if every unusual concept is elucidated as a footnote, he is ultimately making his text more accessible, which could be seen as a form of domestication.

Another comparison that serves to refine the distinction between a domestic and foreign text is the structure of the text and language. One chief distinction in the two translators’ structure is that Burton does not split his content into paragraphs while Lyons does. Lyons’ purpose would be to allow for more clarity of the story by adhering to the norms of modern writing, thus acting as a domesticating tool. In addition, the structure of poetry in the Burton’s texts is peculiar, it would require some research as to how to decipher it; Lyons’ structure of poetry is altogether standard. His sentences are simpler and shorter, and he also places certain words in italics, such as “Qadi” to signify to foreign word.

The next comparison is Burton’s use of archaic English throughout his text. In all texts of The Haroun Tales, very often words are latched with “eth” at the end, like ‘belongeth”, “aileth”, “needeth”, etc. Furthermore there is frequent use of Shakespearean or Old English such as “hath” and “thou” and also categories of people such as “boon-companions”, “cup-companions” and “cresset-bearers”. Lyons uses modern English throughout and simply writes “companions” rather than the aforementioned phrases. In this way he familiarizes his text to the modern reader. Ironically, Burton may have intended to domesticate his text for his readers by using Old English; however, Victorian readers were relatively modern in terms of their use of language– so Burton may not have succeeded in his purpose. His style can be said to make texts foreign to both the Victorian reader as well as the modern reader.

One way to differentiate between the two translators’ style is to categorize it into two: language and content. Both Burton and Lyons use of language is consistent in its impact. For instance Lyons structure of language, sentences, and poetry does not disrupt the codes of the English language. It poses little or no challenge in terms of comprehension as he replaces cultural difference with familiar text. Similarly Burton is unswerving in his style of language, deliberately breaching the codes of English in order to retain as much as possible from the original language. Therefore the impact that this creates is constant; Lyons’ language is more familiar for the reader and Burton’s is stranger. However it is apparent that in terms of content, the translator’s exhibit an inconsistency; for instance Burton foreignizes his text with sexual explicitness but makes it domestic by obscuring the homosexual connotations. Similarly Lyons retracts from erotic vividness but is very graphic in homosexual imagery.

Nevertheless in terms of content, the nature of the comparison between Burton and Lyons is complex as it involves not just cultural differences but differences in time period. Violence, for example, is not exactly a culture-specific concept, and its analysis here is based on its reception by readers from two different time periods. Sexuality, while it may be a culture-specific concept, has also been chiefly analyzed in terms of how the readers from each time period would react to it. Therefore, for instance, if Burton had published his translation during Lyons’ time, his sexually graphic scenes would not be foreign to the readers. If Lyons’ had published his text during Burton’s time, his depictions of love instead of lust would be easier for the readers to relate it.

In continuation of the debate about content, the gap between the two time periods presents us with another question; will any kind of content be foreigizing to the modern reader if they are so insusceptible? Insofar, Lyons text is not directly foreign for modern readers; it has simply been noted that his content does not encompass more vivid and detailed material, for example, in his descriptions of sex and violence. His text therefore does not necessarily pose difficulty in reception for his readers. It is not likely that, for instance, a less graphic sex scene would make the text foreign to them. Furthermore, if Victorian readers were to have read his text, most aspects would allow for it to be domestic for them. The only outstanding feature would be his portrayal of homosexuality. Apart from that, every technique used by Lyons in the Haroun Tales would serve to familiarize his text for Victorian readers. Similarly, it can be said that no section of solely the content Burton’s text would be foreign to a modern reader.

As we can see, a translator may knowingly or unknowingly include elements of both methods of translation in his text. The distinction between the two would then still be useful in some cases. However it is fair to state that the usefulness of this distinction is largely contingent upon the time period in which the text was published. The perceptions of readers change vastly over time, making it difficult to label a text as foreign or domestic. To distinguish between foreignization and domestication is therefore inapplicable because the features that make a text domestic in one time period will ultimately be what make it foreign in another.

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