Arabic Translation Challenge: ‘You’ve Aged Like a Cat!’

For the sixth week of our #ArabicTranslationChallenge, a cat appears:

By Kevin Blankinship

An older cat.

Thanks to all who took part in last week’s challenge, and a very special thanks to Youssef Rakha for hosting. It’s hard to believe that we’re down to just two weeks left of the Arabic Translation Challenge “pilot” program! As we ponder what the future holds for the series, your support and involvement warms our hearts and fires our imaginations. It makes the whole project a real pleasure.

Now on to this week’s challenge. In his Greater Life of Animals (Hayaat al-Hayawaan al-kubraa), the Egyptian jurist and nature historian al-Damiri (d. 1405 CE) includes this somewhat baffling expression: “He’s like the housecat of `Abd Allah” (ka’annahu sinnawr `Abd Allah), which, al-Damiri explains, is said of anyone who, the older he gets, the less he is worth. To demonstrate how it’s used, al-Damiri quotes the blind poet Bashshaar ibn Burd: “Abu Makhlad, when you were young, you swam against the tide, but when you got old, you camped on the beach, / like `Abd Allah’s housecat—worth a dirham as a kitten, it sold for only a qirat when fully grown!”

Thinking this meant a specific cat, Ibn Khallikan, another writer, asked around to find out more about the feline companion of one `Abd Allah al-Mazaann. Finding no trace, he says, “I finally fixed on to this line by al-Farazdaq,” which is apparently where Bashshaar got his own line about cats, rather than a real live one, and which is this week’s challenge:

Meter: waafir. Yughaalaa bihi: “it is given a high value.” Idhaa maa shabba, “when he grows up.” The idea of a cat being worth more as a kitten than when it’s fully grown might have been based in reality; al-Jahiz relates in his Book of the Living (Kitaab al-Hayawaan) that that in the illegal cat trade, kittens commanded a much higher price than adults, respectively a dirham and only a qirat:

I saw everyone getting lovelier, day by day,

and you, becoming less so!

Like a cat that fetches a high price in its youth,

and which, when it ages, goes for cheap.

Whether historically truthful or not, the lines are a remarkable foil to “aging like wine,” i.e. getting better with age (and in a fitting break with our wine poet Abu Nuwas). Very excited to see what you come up with!

Kevin Blankinship is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.