Arabic Translation Challenge #4: ‘Like a Lion with Spots’

For the fourth week of our #ArabicTranslationChallenge, a hunting poem:

By Kevin Blankinship

From a copy of ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing) by al-Qazwīnī (d. 1283/682).

Thanks to all who took part in last week’s challenge, and a very special thanks to Rachel Schine for hosting. Just a reminder that the challenge goes up every Tuesday, and then you have until that Friday at noon EST to send your translations via WordPress comments, Facebook or Twitter (@AmericanMaghreb), or email at — submit wherever you like, but please do submit! Then we’ll do a roundup on Saturday to showcase your talents. Remember that it’s not a contest, but a chance to celebrate each other’s work in as broadminded a way as possible. The more, the merrier!

Now on to this week’s challenge. The fall theme for ArabLit Quarterly is “CATS,” and to that end, we’ll have a look at some feline poetry over the next few weeks (I’m counting on you for some strong GIFs and memes). Even though I hate to repeat the same poet, it’s time once again for Abu Nuwas, best remembered for his wine poetry but who was also a master of the hunting poem (tardiyyah). The following two lines come from one such poem in rajaz meter describing a rare animal in the Arabic literary imagination: the cheetah (fahd):

Numrah: spots. Al-shabaH al-Haa’il: any moving figure. Bayna shariijay: “between the divided bow rod,” i.e. between the two conditions of x and y. Tama`: ambition, desire. Hard: lack, need. This is no cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz, but rather a jungle cat that’s “ready to pounce on any moving figure” (li-l-shabaHi l-Haa’ili musta`iddi). As hunting animals, cheetahs sometimes appear in medieval manuscripts accompanying their masters on horseback; in the context of animal tales, lions and leopards often go together (for a great rundown of cats in Persian manuscripts, see this post over at the British Library’s Asian and African Studies Blog). Philip Kennedy translates as follows from his Oneworld book on Abu Nuwas, pp. 114-115:

Like a lion yet with stippled coat

Ready to pounce on any moving figure …

After a period of want and economy

There is no benefit from a hunt without a cheetah.

While I personally can’t say whether the last line is true, what I can say is that it would be a loss for the classical Arabic tradition if we didn’t have cheetah poems like this one. Very excited to see how you interpret Abu Nuwas’s answer to The Tiger King!

Kevin Blankinship is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.