The old stories stay with us—ancient legends, fables and fairy tales provide the fodder and archetypes for today’s fantasy fiction, superhero movies and Disney musicals. The story of Aladdin is one of the best loved and most adapted of those tales (there are dozens of film and TV versions of the story in English alone), yet its origins are clouded. As professor Paulo Lemos Horta points out in the introduction to Aladdin, a sparkling new translation of the tale by poet Yasmine Seale, the story was introduced to the West via 18th-century France as part of the wildly popular One Thousand and One Nights, translated by Antoine Galland, who claimed the story came from a manuscript given to him in 1709 by a Maronite Christian traveler from Aleppo. Scholars were long suspect of this origin story, until the recent discovery of the memoirs of Syrian adventurer Hanna Diyab, which validate Galland’s version of events.
Whatever its provenance, the story has been adapted, altered, bowdlerized and Robin William-ized over the centuries. Salman Rushdie even uses it in The Satanic Verses. Seale’s elegant new translation of Aladdin restores the tale to its roots. Tapping into her own Syrian-French background, Seale has worked from both Arabic and French sources to produce her captivating translation.
Aladdin, told here with the deceptively simple cadences of classic storytelling, is the tale of a poor tailor’s son who lives with his widowed mother “in the capital of one of China’s vast and wealthy kingdoms.” (This intriguing Chinese connection often has been lost over the years—most film and stage adaptations seem to set the story against an Arab-influenced, Middle Eastern or vaguely Mogul backdrop.) The young Aladdin has developed wild tendencies, and though he is on the cusp of manhood, he still embraces the indolent ways of a street urchin. One day, a Maghrebi magician pretends to be his uncle, and under the guise of showing his nephew the beautiful gardens outside the city walls, he takes Aladdin to a remote room hidden beneath a stone. Giving him a magic ring, the magician sends Aladdin into the room to gather treasure, after which he intends to leave the boy for dead. But Aladdin outwits the magician and takes the jewels he finds, as well as a magic lantern he discovers, and escapes back home. Slowly, Aladdin’s good fortune begins to dawn on him and his mother. When he spies on the sultan’s beautiful daughter, Badr al-Budur, he vows to marry her. With his newfound wealth and the power of the jinnis who inhabit the ring and the lantern, Aladdin is able to win her hand and build a great palace. But the magician—and his equally nefarious brother—will resurface to cause Aladdin all manner of trouble.
This new translation of Aladdin is steeped in magic.
Some aspects of the story will be familiar to lovers of the tale, while others may surprise. Seale crafts a delightful narrative that taps into the simple wonders of the story, evoking the mesmerizing voice of Shahrazad who, of course, is telling this cliffhanger-filled yarn to her sultan husband in order to keep herself alive.
This new translation of Aladdin, steeped in magic and stripped of some of the phony adornments that have diluted its essence over the centuries, is a delightful retelling of the dreams and adventures of the wily young peasant boy who matures to become a beloved ruler.