Arabic Translation Challenge: If You See His Fangs Bared …

For the seventh and final week of our #ArabicTranslationChallenge pilot project, you must face the lion’s jaws:

By Kevin Blankinship

Attributed to Mo‘in Mosavvir, February 13, 1672. © The Aga Khan Museum.

It has come to this: the final “pilot” week of the Arabic Translation Challenge. To be honest, I started the series for a selfish reason, namely, to connect with people on social media. I didn’t expect for it to garner so much interest, and I certainly couldn’t have predicted the kaleidoscope of styles, languages, and media that came in with such persistence and uniformly high quality. Thanks to the participants, the guest hosts, Marcia Lynx Qualey and, and everyone else who’s made curating the challenges nothing but unmixed pleasure.

To be clear: this is not goodbye but au revoir. The challenges will return soon, whatever reincarnation they happen to take. Hope to see you there.

At the risk of being selfish (and cliché) yet again, I wanted to put up what happens to be my favorite line in all of Arabic poetry, especially since it fits the theme of “CATS” for the fall issue of Arablit Quarterly. It’s from a poem of `itaab, “scolding,” typically from one friend to another (`itaab was its own poetic mode, almost like a subgenre) by al-Mutanabbi, the single most impactful poet in classical Arabic. Appearing in one of his sayfiyyaat, i.e. praise poems to his favorite patron Sayf al-Dawlah, it recuperates martial imagery to pit the poet against his rivals, whom he draws in with pleasing mien before the kill:

If you see the lion’s fangs bared,

don’t assume the lion is smiling!

Although this is the line that made such imagery famous, al-Mutanabbi wasn’t the first to use it. Several centuries earlier, `Antarah ibn Shaddad, “the black knight” in Arberry’s words, said of actual opponents locked in battle:

When he beheld me come down

in the field against him,

he bared his back teeth [nawaajidh]

and not in a grin, I may say  (trans. Arberry)

And since the line by al-Mutanabbi quoted above comes from the same poem as another, his best known to posterity, why not put that up for translation, too?

Horses and night and the desert

they all know me

and sword and spear

and parchment and pen.

Please feel free to translate any or all these lines this week. Thanks again for your support and keep your eyes to this page for updates!

Kevin Blankinship is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.