ArabLit hosted its fourth edition of the Arabic Translation Challenge starting June 2, 2020:

By Kevin Blankinship

In the Thousand and One Nights, the “First Dervish’s Tale” tells of a wandering prince-turned-dervish who accidently puts out the eye of a vizier while hunting. Enraged, the vizier has the dervish’s eye put out in turn, then sends him to the woods to be executed. The executioner takes pity on the hapless prince and lets him go, reciting these verses while he does (in Husain Haddawy’s English):

If you suffer injustice, save yourself,

And leave the house behind to mourn its builder.

Your country you’ll replace by another,

But for yourself, you’ll find no other self.

Nor with a mission trust another man,

For none is as loyal as you yourself.

And did the lion not struggle by himself,

He would not prowl with such a mighty mane.

It seems fitting that a lion is the chosen symbol of self-reliance. In classical Arabic literature, large cats are clever, offish, and deadly, whether like the one pictured by the executioner which announces itself openly, or the leopards and lynxes that sneak up from behind. This week, the Arabic Translation Challenge gave us some of option two, thanks to Abu Nuwas, the bacchic bard and skilled hunting poet:

Perhaps the lilting rajaz meter in the Arabic readily lends itself to English meter and rhyme, since many entrants took to formal poetry. Enas Eltorky rendered the lines in AA/BB, with a long line at the end to draw out the tension and make it last:

Lion incarnate, bespeckled hide

Stalking and set, for any that hide

Betwixt the bounds of desire and need

Naught is to be gained from a hunt save with a cheetah, indeed!

Meanwhile, Naif Alrogi (@Cybron on Twitter) alternated the rhyme (AB/AB) and put four beats per line to make alliterative verse, organic but still tightly rhythmic:

Like the lion, but with spotted hide

On passing shadows, ready to spring

In the throes of anger and pride

When on the hunt, a cheetah bring

Eva Kahan points out that “(1) the ‘ed ending is a nice inverse of the دِ and (2) female cheetahs, according to the internet, hunt just as much as males and are a hair faster!” Giving the she-cheetah her due, Eva translates as follows, with an inventive rhyme—and perfect-tense verb form—as a final flourish:

Her form’s leonine – but for fur, darkly dotted,
Each creature of ground, sea, and air she has spotted;
Twixt hubris and hunger, her patience has rotted –
Whatever is slaughtered, the Cheetah, she slaught it.

In fact, several submissions had inventive uses of rhyme. Here is thearabicpages leaving the first couplet “blank” (i.e. unrhymed) and the second one rhymed:

Lion (low) but spotted,

Shapeshifter, arched back,

An arrow poised between want and need,

A hunt without it is “ghayr mufeed”!

And Omar Ibrahim has exact rhyme in the first couplet, then slant rhyme in the second:

Like a lion but with speckled skin,

Ready to attack the ghost within.

Whether for greed or for grumps

Without a leopard, no need to hunt.

Stuart Brown gave us internal rhyme and some fine plosive alliteration, but also a bit of useful background: “The word فهد bears the same Persian etymological origins with the middle English ‘pard,’ a mythical beast whose offspring with a lion is, rather oddly, the actual beast that is the leopard. Pard can be just a synonym for the latter, though it is also still used in heraldry (because heraldry), where—just to confuse matters—it is the term for a lion passant guardant (walking, with his head turn towards the viewer). As in medieval Europe the hunt goes hand-in-gauntlet with heraldry, that seemed a suitable vocabulary into which to coerce (not always with complete precision) the Arabic”:

A lion but of blemished pelt,
Regardant for a beast passant.
Poised between hunger and fury—
Hard is the hunt, save with a pard.

Stuart’s version was part of a smaller but vibrant group of free verse English translations this week. Nadeem M Qureshi moves seamlessly from description in the first three lines of his version, to declaration in the fourth:

Like a lion with a skin of speckled fabric

Eager to pounce on a moving phantom

Driven by avarice and fury

There is no joy in the hunt without a cheetah

And Patricia Blessing trimmed the Arabic down to its core, like Thoreau going to the woods to front only the essential facts of life:

spotted lion, tense
tired of lockdown
take the cheetah hunting?
wait and pine

There were fewer non-English submissions this week, but the ones that came in were stellar. Khaled Osman renders Abu Nuwas into a French triplet:

Tel un lion sinon le pelage moucheté

Que voracité et disette ont affûté

Hors le leopard chaser n’est que vanité

And in a first for the Arabic Translation Challenge, Hamid Ouyachi translated to Tamazight, a generic term for several indigenous dialects spoken by the Amazigh (Berber) peoples of North Africa:

As for visual representations, this week’s entries did not disappoint. Some, like that of @matt_boot_, used a striking layout to point out resonances across time, genre, and age group:

While Rachel Schine paired her tight free verse rendition of Abu Nuwas with a classic of American cinema, Monsters Inc.:

But there were, of course, pictures of actual cats. Hajar AlMahfoodh gave her English alliteration and internal rhymes an extra kick with a leopard GIF:

Some participants, like Layla al-Ammar, were content to let the visuals speak for themselves:

And of course, what translation challenge would be complete without Danny DeVito in a man-cheetah costume? Theresa Reaper and I rest our case:

Stay tuned for next week, when Youssef Rakha, author of The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, will guest host the translation challenge. Hope to see you then!

Kevin Blankinship is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.

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