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Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights

by Paulo Lemos Horta Harvard University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 384 pages
AU$44.99 NZ$47.82
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Although many of its stories originated centuries ago in the Middle East, the Arabian Nights is regarded as a classic of world literature by virtue of the seminal French and English translations produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Supporting the suspicion that the story collection is more Parisian than Persian, some of its most famous tales, including the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, appear nowhere in the original sources. Yet as befits a world where magic lamps may conceal a jinni and fabulous treasures lie just beyond secret doors, the truth of the Arabian Nights is richer than standard criticism suggests.


Marvellous Thieves recovers the cross-cultural encounters - the collaborations, borrowings, and acts of literary larceny - that produced the Arabian Nights in European languages. Ranging from the coffeehouses of Aleppo to the salons of Paris, from colonial Calcutta to Bohemian London, Paulo Lemos Horta introduces readers to the poets and scholars, pilgrims and charlatans who made crucial but largely unacknowledged contributions to this most famous of story collections. Each version betrays the distinctive cultural milieu in which it was produced and the workshop atmosphere of its compilation. Time and again, Horta shows, stories were retold and elaborate commentaries added to remake the Arabian Nights in accordance with the personalities and ambitions of the storytellers and writers.

Untangling the intricate web of invention and plagiarism that ensnares the Arabian Nights, Horta rehabilitates the voices hidden in its long history—voices that mirror the endless potential of Shahrazad’s stories to proliferate.

A Note on Terminology


1. The Storyteller and the Sultan of France

2. Marvellous Thieves

3. The Empire of English

4. The Magician's Interpreter

5. The Wiles of Women

6. Stealing with Style

7. The False Caliph



Illustration Credits


“This fine book…cogently probes an influential period in the knotted and at times sordid history of the Arabian Nights, serving as a fine example to those unraveling this promiscuous and forever malleable set of stories.”—Charles Shafaieh, The Wall Street Journal

“Marvellous Thieves, which draws on hitherto neglected sources, is a brilliant, fluent and original work of literary scholarship.”—Robert Irwin, Literary Review

“Intelligent and engrossing… The great merit of Horta’s book is that its interest always lies in the story of the story, in mapping out the complex network of the translators, editors and travellers behind the Arabian Nights, in ways that enrich our sense of this remarkable text.”—Shahidha Bari, Times Higher Education

“Drawing on resources that include the Vatican Library, [Marvellous Thieves] offers some fascinating revelations about the translation efforts that turned the Arabian Nights—also known as One Thousand and One Nights—into the world’s inheritance… Horta’s book has come out at a time when geopolitical developments give it added poignancy. The election of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties in Europe have signaled a surging antipathy towards the idea of an interconnected world… In this context, reading Marvellous Thieves is a reminder of the blessings that can come from global commerce and communion.”—Celia Wren, Commonweal

“A work of meticulous cultural and literary history… This is a fascinating story of the many voices that narrated, authored, retold, embellished and translated the stories of Scheherazade; it is also an exploration into how stories travel.”—Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta, The Hindu

“In writing a biography of 200 years of Nights’ translation, with its multiplicity of voices, sources, contexts and prejudices, Horta has breathed life into another great story to emerge from the Thousand and One Nights.”—Clare Dight, The National

“[A] vivid, intellectually lively and revelatory book… The real point about this clever book is that many of the things we think about modernity—let alone postmodernity—have already happened. Postmodernism says that the book is always fluid; no text shows this as clearly as Arabian Nights. There can be no perfect version. It shows that authors are also collaborators, translators, plagiarists, elusive.”—Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

“Horta takes the reader across empires and trade routes to discover the hidden networks of textual transmission which produced the Arabian Nights… Horta’s multi-lingual research and his rich narrative style make for exciting reading.”—Sujaan Mukherjee, The Telegraph (Calcutta)

“A fascinating work of cultural and literary history… An insightful examination of a significant literary work and the fraught complexities of translation.”—Kirkus Reviews

“[In] this well-researched and highly engaging work, readers will uncover the origins of the Arabian Nights as it exists today in the West. This work is a major contribution to the study of the complexities inherent in translating such a masterpiece.”—Ali Houissa, Library Journal (starred review)

“In this enchanting work, Horta focuses on the European translations of The Arabian Nights that brought these Middle Eastern tales to a wide western audience… His fascinating search for the origins of The Arabian Nights as it exists today reveals a multitude of storytellers nearly as colorful as Sinbad or Aladdin.”—Publishers Weekly

“Paulo Horta has uncovered a mass of fresh evidence about key figures in the making of the Arabian Nights and communicates his startling findings with a storyteller’s verve, raising many fascinating issues about the interplay of invention, imitation, translation, and plagiarism, and probing the vexed effects of the imperial gaze and the acquisition of local expertise and languages. In Marvellous Thieves, Paulo Horta has written a highly entertaining, attentive, and scholarly work of literary detection.”—Marina Warner, author of Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
Paulo Lemos Horta is Assistant Professor of Literature at New York University Abu Dhabi.