‘Fee for a Feline’

ArabLit hosted our sixth edition of the Arabic Translation Challenge starting June 16, 2020:

By Kevin Blankinship

Thanks to everyone for another great #ArabicTranslationChallenge! Next week will be the last round of our pilot program, after which we’ll take a few weeks off to consider how best to continue the series. Suggestions are always welcome. Thanks for your support thus far!

I’m tickled by any chance to go down the rabbit hole—or is it the “kitty condo”?—in search of quirky themes in premodern Arabic, and then to share them with the world. Felines especially are an endless source of mirth. Among other writers, the fifteenth-century polymath Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti has a cute rajaz poem listing off sundry names for cats in his Diwan al-hayawan:

Now, there’s ‘cat’ [qiTT] and ‘alleycat’ [hirr],

and likewise ‘prancing chessy’[khayTal]

and after that, the old ‘housecat’ [sinnawr],

and then the ‘swaggerpussy’ [khanTal]”

You get the idea. It was a joy to see your catlike reflexes as you took on al-Farazdaq’s couplet about aging gracelessly:

As in past weeks, many entrants went for it with formal poetry. Ahdaf Soueif’s slant rhyme and reflective stance sets the right mood:

I saw people add to their beauty day

by day – while yours got less:

a playful kitten will fetch a price

but you can’t get rid of an ancient puss.

Or Suneela Sunbula rhyming ABAB:

Folks get lovelier by the day

you just get meaner

Like baby kittens fetchin’ high pay

Then they grow the sum gets leaner

And Kay Lee’s AABA quatrain:

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

And for those who like pictures, here’s an image of a Mau to go along with it:

The Egyptian Mau (source: Wikipedia)

Appropriately enough, Bash Mahdawi brought in the image of an unraveling ball of string (our feline companions would surely have given their approval):

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

For a sober feel, connectinghamza used long lines to convey the gravity of al-Farazdaq’s message:

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.

Meanwhile, the quick stride and slangy informality of abgadhawaz adds a lighter touch (this is the second of two entries):

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

As does the frolicking and felicitous feline f-alliteration of @BintAbiMansur:

I found folk to be frequently fairer –

And you, to be further from fetching!

Whilst inflated is the fee for a feline –

If its flame flickers, the figure is trifling!

In fact, more than one participant submitted a limerick or similarly light form that picked up the epigrammatic feel. Here is Hamid Ouyachi:


Time passes

with graces for many.


For you:

it couldn’t afford any.

Once, a prize-puss

all for bragging.

Now, a frosty Fritz,

zestless and chagrin.

As well as Mishka M. Mourani:

The older people get

The more they gain in favor.

Only you,


Gain in worthlessness

The older you get.

Zinger! And Eva Kahan sent in a proper limerick:

Every day, I meet people who brighten
with age – but you just seem to frighten.
Like a pussy – or cat –
the kitten’s all that
But with age, nothing’s left to delight in.

Continuing in the Irish vein, Aidan Kaplan submitted a James Joyce-inspired prose version to celebrate Bloomsday, commemorated each year on 16 June, the day his 1922 novel Ulysses takes place in 1904 and named after its protagonist Leopold Bloom (Aidan was also inspired by Michael Cooperson’s Joycean “Englishing” of Imposture 46 by al-Hariri, called “Araby” in English):

As did @PressTaras, “from the perspective of Leopold Bloom’s cat at the top of book 2 (Calypso), exploring her inscrutable motives as she toys with Bloom for attention, through the imagery of the Cheshire Cat” (for an extra gloss, @PressTaras notes that “‘pussens,’ ‘Mrkgnao,’ ‘avid shameclosing eyes,’ and ‘green stones’ are all significant terms/phrases of Joyce’s [not my word choice] in the chapter, which you can see here):

Several non-English versions came in this week, including the fine French of Stéphanie Dujols:

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

There was also the well-wrought German of @Leonie_Rau_ (we appreciate the hard work that went into this!):

And in a first for the #ArabicTranslationChallenge, a rendering into Indonesian by @mustamdi_ :

Finally, sliding in under the wire were Hajar Almahfoodh’s spectacled Silvester:

And Alexander Key’s rendering, which as Theresa Reaper put it, felt like a “velvet glove to the face”:

I see people

getting beautiful

day after day

but just not you.

Like a kitten

you only mean anything

when you’re young

you know that’s true.

Now that’s what I call letting the cat out of the bag. See you Tuesday for the final pilot episode!

Kevin Blankinship is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.