‘Here Comes the Ripper’

ArabLit hosted our seventh — and final* — edition of the Arabic Translation Challenge starting June 23, 2020:

By Kevin Blankinship

“Time to run for dear life because you are his lunch.”

Thanks to everyone for supporting the Arabic Translation Challenge! We’ll be back soon, promise. For some well-known and pretty straightforward lines of Arabic poetry, I was amazed yet again by the range and creativity of responses this week. Just to remind you of the texts:


If you see the lion’s fangs bared,

don’t assume the lion is smiling!

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)


Some participants, such as Hanan Nasser (@hanannasser), chose to focus on one line:

When the lion bears his fangs

That is not a smile you see

Or Deema (@HummusChoseMe), who turned the line into a triplet with a strong finish:

Lion’s fangs glimmer

You smile in return, but

Here comes the ripper

Abgadhawaz also made a triplet, drawing it out with vivid imagery and diction:

Steeds and the night and wild blighted expanse
All know my mettle: the metal of lance
And sword, the steel of writing pen and word

Huda Abubaker Shalabi drew out the dire warning of al-Mutanabbi’s line:

A lion will bare its teeth

Dare not to be fooled

That is no smile he is flashing you

And Tuve Floden gave us some euphonic alliteration:

Steeds, night, the desert

Indeed, they know me

Like spear and sabre

Or pen and paper

Meanwhile, Thearabicpages took a decidedly casual route:

Cat’s canines out not in?
Believe me, that’s not a grin!

And Alex Rowell gave a nod to the constellations:

Should Leo put his fangs on show

He’s not smiling (you should know)

Joe Bradford took us back to 1990s rap:

When you see this lion’s teeth shining,

It’s like Rakim said: “Nobody’s smiling.”

And if anyone didn’t catch al-Mutanabbi’s gist, Mahmoud Khalifa spells it out for us:

If the lion bares its fangs, be warned; it is not smiling.

In other words: it is time to run for dear life because you are his lunch.

Other participants took on all three verses. Buthaina Al Nasiri conveys all the gravity:

Horses, know me well, so do the night and wasteland,
And the sword, the spear, the parchment and pen.
Beholding me facing up to fight
He bared his teeth in a grimace
If a Lion’s bared fangs, you behold,
Don’t take it for a grin.

While connectinghamza grins through the translation:

If you see a lion grinning,
It’s time to start running!
When he saw me coming for him,
He bared his teeth in not quite a grin.
Horses, night and the desert know me well.
As do swords and spears,
Parchment and inkwell.

Aidan Kaplan went for rhyme and meter, with a high register reminiscent of another century:

When you see that the lion is showing his teeth,

You must not be fooled. It’s no smile, my lord.

My friends are my steed, and this waste, and the night,

My paper and pen, and my spear and my sword.

My poems bring sight to the eyes of the blind.

The deaf start to hear by the strength of my word.

Hamid Ouyachi took some liberties with vocabulary to make a colorful quilt:

When I flash my ivory at you

Just know

I am not making friends –

ever saw a lion smile at a doe?

Steeds, nights and badlands

Blade, spear

Vellum and reed

Are the friends I know.

Alexander Key’s free verse drives rhythm, syntax, and sense right to the edge of their capacity. I thought instantly of e.e. cummings:

Lion fangs think

don’t think smiling

think death.


I was down to kill

he saw me mouth

agape molars on

show not smiling



In a horse night

on a desert sword

pen is spear

paper knows my –

@PressTaras sent two entries, the second being another hip-hop reference and going along with several visually-inflected versions:


1. [Instructions to a dental veterinarian]:

When seeing to a lion’s teeth

Do not be dazzled by his enamel.


2. [Instructions from a gentle veteran]:

When seeing to an enemy on the battlefield

He may grin; we must bear it.







As a follow up, and capturing an essential part of the poet’s persona, Rachel Schine channeled “asshole Mutanabbi, thinking he’s the lion (hence in the lion’s voice):

I’ve no Chesire’s

Winsome smirk

I bare my teeth

To set to work.

Kevin Blankinship is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.

*If you have thoughts about the next shape this translation challenge should take, please get in touch. Also, the necklace featured in Amanda H. Steinberg’s tweet, and used as our featured image, is available for sale.