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In The Arabian Nights, translated by Husain Haddawy, the following chronology appears in The Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies on the 28th night (my emphasis):

She walked before him until she stopped at the door of a house, and when she knocked, an old Christian came down, received a dinar from her and handed her an olive green jug of wine...

the porter lifted the basket and followed her until she stopped at the fruit vendor's...

Then she stopped at the butcher's...

The porter, wondering at all these purchases, placed his basket on his head and followed her until she came to the grocer's...

The porter carried his basket and followed her until she came to the dry grocer's...

The porter carried the basket and followed her until she came to the confectioner's...

She smiled and walked ahead until she came to the druggist's...

(p. 80-81)

Thus, the order of places that the porter visited was:

Old Christian > Fruit Vendor > Butcher > Grocer > Dry Grocer > Confectioner > Druggist.

However, on the 37th night the porter recounts the events as follows (my emphasis):

"Mistress, you know that the reason I came to this place was that I was hired as a porter by this shopper, who led me from the vintner to the butcher, and from the butcher to the greengrocer, and from the greengrocer to the fruit vendor, and from the fruit vendor to the dry grocer, then to the confectioner, to the druggist, and finally to this house.

(p. 104)

Thus, according to the porter the order was as follows:

Vintner > Butcher > Greengrocer > Fruit Vendor > Dry Grocer > Confectioner > Druggist.

This is clearly different from the order mentioned above. For a visual aid, here are the two orders next to each other:

Old Christian > Fruit Vendor > Butcher > Grocer > Dry Grocer > Confectioner > Druggist.

Vintner > Butcher > Greengrocer > Fruit Vendor > Dry Grocer > Confectioner > Druggist.

I think it is safe to assume that the old Christian from the first version is the vintner from the second version, and that the grocer from the first version is identical with the greengrocer from the second version, so those discrepancies are taken care of. However, in the first version the fruit vendor was visited between the vintner and the butcher, while in the second version the fruit vendor was visited between the greengrocer and the dry grocer.

What is the explanation for this discrepancy?

  • Is this simply an issue with this particular translation?
  • Is it an authorial error?
  • Is it meant to be part of the story that the porter changed (or forgot) the events?
  • Is it just to see if the reader is paying attention?
  • Something else?

Has anyone else ever noted this discrepancy and possibly tried to explain it? (A very quick Google search did not turn up anything.)

  • 1
    Fun guess, almost certainly not true: in translation from a right-to-left language (Arabic) into left-to-right languages (English etc), the order in the list got swapped around somehow. – Rand al'Thor May 21 at 19:52
2
+50

TL;DR: Most likely an error of composition or copying.

Galland manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Arabe 3609–11

The 15th century Syrian ‘Galland manuscript’, the oldest extant manuscript of the Nights. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Arabe 3609–11.

There is a lot of variation among the manuscripts of the Nights, and not all versions have the porter retell the list of shops. For example, in Edward William Lane’s 1853 translation, the porter in retelling his story says only, “this cateress loaded me and brought me hither”. But in all the translations I looked at where the porter does list the shops, there is a discrepancy between the original narration of the shopping trip, and the porter’s retelling of it.

  1. In Antoine Galland’s 1704 translation, the original order is:

    Chrétien; vendeur de fruits et de fleurs; boucher; une autre boutique [greengrocer]; une autre [dry grocer]; une autre encore [confectioner]; droguiste

    (the bracketed descriptions are mine, based on what the lady bought at the shop), and the order in the porter’s retelling is:

    marchand de vin; vendeur d’herbes; vendeur d’oranges, de limons et de citrons; vendeur d’amandes, de noix, de noisettes et d’autres fruits; confiseur; droguiste

    Note that there are only six shops in the retelling, the butcher having been omitted.

  2. In John Payne’s 1882 translation, the original order is:

    Nazarene; fruiterer; butcher; grocer; pastry-cook; druggist; greengrocer

    and the order in the retelling is:

    vintner; butcher; fruiterer; grocer; greengrocer; confectioner; druggist

  3. In Richard Burton’s 1885 translation, the original order is:

    Nazarene; fruiterer; butcher; grocer; confectioner; perfumer; greengrocer

    and the order in the retelling is:

    vintner; butcher; fruiterer; grocer; confectioner; perfumer-cum-druggist

    Note that there are only six shops in the retelling, the greengrocer having been omitted.

Robert Irwin suggests that the variation between manuscripts is due in part to carelessness in copying, and in part to the use to which the manuscripts were to be put:

The Nights cannot have been seen as a canonical text which deserved special care or demanded accurate transmission; nor was it written to be read by scholars. It is unlikely that medieval copyists of manuscripts of the Nights had any great reverence for the text they were transcribing. Mahdi himself has noted the evidence, provided in the marginalia of a manuscript of the Nights now in the British Library, of a book dealer, Ahmad al-Rabbat, who traded in Aleppo in the late eighteenth century, who used to hire out copies of collections of stories and poetry—and when these collections began to suffer from wear, al-Rabbat would insert new pages, sometimes with new stories.

There was no reason for a scribal copyist of the Nights to take special pains to get the Arabic right, for it was never written in immaculate classical Arabic in the first place. Nor was there any reason to hesitate in adding or deleting stories, incidents or glosses. […]

In fact, it is likely that many copies of the Nights were written to be read aloud, whether by professional or amateur storytellers, and it may be that the storyteller had no need of the full text (never mind an accurate one!); he needed only an outline of a story on which he could embroider. Moreover, if storytellers themselves made copies of the text, they would very likely have added favourite elaborations of their own devising to stories in their repertoire.

Robert Irwin (1994). The Arabian Nights: A Companion, pp. 58–59. Penguin.

Irwin’s description of the context of manuscript production is clearly also capable of explaining the internal inconsistency between the two lists of shops. The order of shops does not matter for the story, so why take pains to make it consistent? Given all the events that take place between the two lists, it is unlikely that a copyist will notice the discrepancy, let alone be troubled enough to correct it.

You can see Irwin’s proposed process of elaboration in operation by looking at the items on the shopping list. For example, at the fruiterer, the lady buys, in Galland’s translation (based on the earliest extant manuscript):

plusieurs sortes de pommes, des abricots, des pêches, des coins, des limons, des citrons, des oranges, du myrte, du basilic, des lis, du jasmin, et de quelques autres sortes de fleurs et de plantes de bonne odeur

[many kinds of apples, apricots, peaches, quinces, lemons, limes, oranges, myrtle, basil, lilies, jasmine, and other kinds of sweet-smelling flowers and plants]

But in Haddawy’s translation (based on Mahdi’s critical edition), the list is much more elaborate:

yellow and red apples, Hebron peaches and Turkish quinces, and seacoast lemons and royal oranges, as well as baby cucumbers. She also bought Aleppo jasmine and Damascus lilies, myrtle berries and mignonettes, daisies and gillyflowers, lilies of the valley and irises, narcissus and daffodils, violets and anemones, as well as pomegranate blossoms.

  • 1
    The question really needed an Arabic speaker, but I did my best with translations. – Gareth Rees May 26 at 17:57

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