Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1001:
BURTON/SHAHRAZAD

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1001.

Today, Richard Burton tells us 1001 stories. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The vizier was appalled when his daughter, Shahrazad, said she would marry the king. The king's first wife had betrayed him, and he'd chopped her and her lover into four pieces with a single sword stroke. Now the king took a new bride each night and killed her the next day. That way, he would not be betrayed again.

When Shahrazad's wedding to the king was consummated, she sat down to tell him a story. By dawn, the story wasn't quite over. So the king spared her that night. Next night, another unfinished story. So it went for a thousand and one nights. Then she said to him, "I have borne you three sons. I have earned your love. Remove the threat of death." "I removed the threat of death long ago," the king replied. "You are my queen."

Burton made the definitive translation of the Arabian Nights stories in 1885. He was a brilliant linguist, fluent in several dialects of Arabic. He'd spent his life in extraordinary scholarship and in extraordinary exploration as well.

He and John Speke had discovered the source of the Nile River. Before that, Burton had written startling travel books. In one exploit, he'd entered the sacred Mosque at Mecca disguised as a Moslem. That would've cost him his life had he been caught.

Other Victorians translated parts of the Arabian Nights, but Burton brought an Arabic mind to the full Arabic text. He had a genius for looking at other cultures with clear, unjudging eyes.

And he went to remote corners of the earth looking for them. In 1860 he visited the new Mormon community in Salt Lake City. He openly contrasted Mormon polygamy with Arabic harems. Burton's biographer, Fawn Brodie, tells how an odd bond of friendship formed between Burton and Brigham Young during that visit.

Burton delighted in Arabic frankness about sexual matters, and he translated with deadly accuracy. That drove his wife to distraction. She produced her own expurgated version of his Arabian Nights for use by ladies. It sold just 471 copies. Victorian ladies, it seems, opted to read the original.

Burton died just as he completed his translation of yet another racy Arabic book, The Scented Garden. His wife promptly burned it along with Burton's journals. Then she wrote her own biography of the man, painting him as modest and proper.

He was anything but! Burton brought a penetrating childlike detachment to that terrible tale of a young queen, bargaining for her life by telling stories -- expecting to die when the stories ceased. And, in a way, Richard Burton was also bargaining for life. He, too, pushed death back night after night by recounting -- for us -- all the unexpected richness of being alive.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Burton, R.F., The Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Made and Annotated by Richard F. Burton. New York: Heritage Press, 1934.

Brodie, F.M., The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1967 (first published as a Norton paperback in 1984).

I am grateful to Judy Myers, UH Libraries, for pointing me to the Fawn Brodie source and to Jeffery Scoggins, Detering Book Gallery, for providing the Heritage Press version of the Arabian Nights.

Soon after the Arabian Nights was published in 1885, Henry Reeves, editor of the Edinburgh Review, called Burton: "a man who knows thirty-five languages and dialects, especially that of pornography." He also said that the Arabian Nights was "one of the most indecent books in the English language -- an extraordinary agglomeration of filth." That's the sort of thing Burton was up against, doing honest translations in a Victorian world.

For a rich web site on Burton, visit: http://www.isidore-of-seville.com/burton/


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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