August 17, 2020

The Translation of Connotation, by Vivica Reeves

Editor’s note: Vivica used a story of a tale published here, “The Lamp,” to interrogate the use of “djinn” and “genie,” among other acts of connotation. I found it an interesting take and hope you will as well. (By the way, all the quotation marks are needed because the words are being referred to in their stars of being words. Some people use italics instead.)

Recently, EC published a short story about a timeless tale told through a different narrator. The story, “The Lamp,” by Marshall J. Moore, retells the tale of Aladdin through the divine being that grants Aladdin his wishes. In the story, the being is called a “genie,” but has the imagery of an angel, such as wings and a halo. As a reader, this simple use of “genie” with the imagery normally provided for angelic beings created an interesting conundrum for me. As I read, “genie” was replaced with angel or was read in a skeptic tone. I read genie but saw an “angel.” My mind continuously translated the story into my connotation.

According to the Oxford dictionary, “connotation” is an idea or feeling which a word invokes for a person in addition to its literal or primary meaning. This addition of ideas or feelings to words can paint different images in each reader's mind. Images the author did not intend or must refute with an image of their own. Images that can create their own story or change the story entirely. The word “djinn” is a good example of this issue.


According to Muslim conception, a “djinn” is an intelligent being composed of vapor or flame. Imperceptible to human senses, they are able to carry out heavy labors and appear in different forms. They are made of smokeless fire, while humans were made of clay, and angels were made of light (MacDonald, D.B.). Now looking at the definition of the French or Old English translation of the word “djinn”—“genie”— which, while similar, has a few additions to it. “Genie” is a spirit of Arabian folklore traditionally depicted as imprisoned within a bottle or oil lamp and capable of granting wishes when summoned. The translation of “djinn” added a specific role and limitations that were not stated in its original definition. Why is that?


“Djinn” was translated into “genie” for the creation of the anthology, The Arabian Nights. This was because the French word “génie” was similar in form and sense to the Arabic word “ jinnī.” The definition of the translation comes from the period and context it was created for. The stories created the definition and imagery of the word “genie” which was only a translation based on sound. This begets another issue since the origin of the tales and stories in The Arabian Nights are not certain. The tale of “Aladdin” for example, was added in later editions of the French translation, then translated into the Arabic where the translation of “djinn” and “genie” was already established (Dobie, 2008). So which definition is to be used: the connotation of the translation, “genie,” or the definition of the original word, “djinn”?

Ultimately, that choice is up to the readers. They can either see a being of fire and power, or a divine being trapped in a lamp enforced to grant wishes, or a mixture of both, or any other connotation they have for that word. With written and oral media, a reader and listener’s power are in their choice on how to see the story. For when they retell it or relay it to others, they are translating the story they saw. They are using forms, words, pictures that they know to fit what they saw. Whether it was intended to be seen that way or not, the reader will translate it that way unless taught or shown otherwise.


At first, this can seem as if the original is being ‘tainted’ or twisted. And it is, but is that not what an adaptation is? The process of making something, in this case, a story, suitable for new use or purpose. Translating a word in an unknown language to a similar sounding word and giving it meaning, was for the purpose to help readers see the story. Another modern example is Disney’s Aladdin and the character The Genie. The Genie is not a divine being of fire or smoke. The Genie has the voice of Robin Williams and is a blue being of phenomenal cosmic power, in an itty-bitty living space that wishes to be free. (Editor’s note: Williams’ character, and the 1992 movie in general, are seen as a bit problematic almost 30 years later. Yes, people the world over love it, but there are issues. The “classic” The Arabian Nights, is also a problem if you aren’t looking at it from a Western viewpoint. Learn more here.)


The Williams version is contrary to most versions of the Aladdin tale in The Arabian Nights. In those versions of the genie, its color is not specified. It is a powerful divine being, but once it is out of the lamp it is already free. The genie is granting the wishes out of obligation or gratitude. Disney’s modern take of The Genie has now added the purpose to be free in most connotations of “genie.” The Genie was changed to fit into a visual children’s media. A being that is made of fire and smoke that is willing to possess humans, is not very kid-friendly. “Djinn” was translated to “genie,” which was then formed to create The Genie. The Genie who is now a beloved and discussed character in this current generation which is generations past the creation of The Arabian Nights.

Though an author, as is the case in Marshall J. Moore’s story, “The Lamp,” can use and define the possible connotations a reader may have, there will be connotations formed that they did not see. An author may even try to give the reader a different perspective on what they perceive. The author is only giving their translation of a story. It is a reader’s choice to let go of their connotations and see the author’s translation. Then they can create their own.


This cycle of translations and connotations can create a puddle of confusion and begets many conundrums. Yet, it is also a representation of an individual, of the willingness to see and understand each other. It can adapt a story to stay alive longer than those who created it. A reader may not always be right in translation, and an author cannot see every connotation, but as long as each is willing to see and understand the other, a story can be told.


“connotation- Definition of connotation English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries – English.



Dobie, Madeleine (2008). "Translation in the contact zone: Antoine Galland's Mille et une nuits: contes arabes". In Makdisi, S.; Nussbaum, F. (eds.). The Arabian Nights in Historical Context. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199554157.


“genie– Definition of genie English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries – English. 


“Genie.” Edited by FANDOM, Disney Wiki, FANDOM, 2010,


MacDonald, D.B., Massé, H., Boratav, P.N., Nizami, K.A. and Voorhoeve, P., “Ḏj̲inn”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Consulted online on 03 July 2020 



Bio: Vivica Reeves graduated from the Art Institute with a Bachelor’s in Media Arts and Animation. With one other short story published in the anthology, Her Story II, she hopes to cultivate her own storytelling with her blog Something Good and continue teaching children on how to tell their story.



Image: Kay Nielsen, who is one of the the most beloved fairy tale artists of all time, had a blue take on a genie on a genie in his illustrations of A Thousand and One Nights. To learn more, visit here.


Kelly Jarvis said...

I love thinking about the nature and history of words, so this article was a delight! My son loved Aladdin when he was little; though I was aware of some of the controversy surrounding the cultural depictions in the Disney production,reading the articles linked here was helpful to me. I loved the way the genie was depicted as an angel in "The Lamp",and I enjoyed the way this essay provided background information on the development of the genie figure while also recognizing that so much of reading is based on an individual response to words.

Katew said...

I loved how this created interplay with another work published on EC! She did a lot of research!

Stephanie said...

Fascinating!! Here's another connotation: my daughter's name is Jinnie (NOT Virginia) and a cousin has called her "Djinn" since birth. 😁 I'm eager to read the linked articles too!

Katew said...

She did a great bibliography!

Victoria Collins said...

This is a wonderful article. It has opened up so many opportunities for discussion in literature that is often overlooked. A very informative article. Wonderful. Look forward to hearing more from this author.

AMOffenwanger said...

So interesting and thought-provoking! I didn't really know of the origin of Aladdin, will need to research that some more. Thank you for this post!

Katew said...

This post got me back to researching Aladdin. I’d forgotten a lot.

Katew said...

Me too!

Wolfchick3 said...

Thank you for commenting everyone!