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.


  1. I’ve seen people who grow more beautiful by the day,
    But you just go from bad to worse.
    Like the kitty-cat that’s worth a fair penny,
    Until it grows old and looses no purse.

  2. Some people grow more fair
    Despite the days and wear
    But you get more unlovely.

    Like a kit once worth a mint
    Now a cat had for just one cent
    Grown cheap and rather ugly.

  3. I’ve seen people gain a day in age
    A day in beauty, but you just untwine
    Like the kitten that comes at a high wage
    When it gets old, the price is in decline

  4. I can’t resist one more:

    Some folks look finer by the day
    But you? It works the other way
    It’s like this:
    Them: cute fluffy kittens
    Gotta have ’em! I’m smitten!
    You: old furball, all worn out
    In the bargain bin on discount

  5. They get daily more pretty
    But you ain’t no beaut
    Like a cut-price kitty
    You’re too old to be cute.

  6. I saw people each day getting lovelier
    While you are only getting uglier.

    Like a cat whose price
    Is higher in its youth.
    But the more it ages,
    The lesser the price!

  7. With age, some people grow in beauty,
    but you’ve grown faulty!
    Like a high priced Mau in youth,
    loses worth with infirmity.

  8. On dit qu’le temps nous bonifie, toi tu rancis
    T’es qu’un vieux mistigri qui n’vaut plus un radis

    1. It may be too late for the writeup, but you can always join!

  9. I thought beauty only appreciated in people over time. Yet, you are depreciating and in decline. Like a youthful feline in its prime, its price can’t get any steeper. So when the kitten grows, it grows cheaper.

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