Saturday, 19 January 2013

The weeping of the Cicadas Part 2: Do they weep or sing? That is the question.

The weeping of the Cicadas Part 2: Do they weep or sing? That is the question.
As stated in my previous post,” The weeping of the Cicadas. Part 1: The name of a bug” having decided to stick with cicada as the translation for alisi I now needed to look at the translation of fetagisi and tagi. This problem was a bit more complex due to cultural differences. As mentioned in my previous post I had initially translated fetagisi as weeping. However, thinking about it made me realise that in English, people refer to the cicadas as singing rather than weeping or crying.
The view of the cicadas as singing is one that applies throughout Europe regardless of language. While I am not one hundred percent certain of this I am basing this statement on my knowledge of French as well as the well known La Fontaine's Fable “La Cigale et la fourmi” which was adapted in the 17th Century from the much more ancient Aesop's Fables (at least 2,300 years earlier).
Just for the record: Yes, I am aware of the contention as to the origin of Aesop’s Fables and the similarity with fables in the Ancient Indian Panchatantra, however, I am not going to discuss the issue of who influenced who or if these stories emerged simultaneously in Greece and India as some suggest since that would be going way off course although I must admit that the whole issue is quite fascinating.

The reason I raised La Fontaine’s Fable ofLa Cigale et la fourmi “ is because of some interesting issues that arise from it in relation to the translation issue at hand.

First of all it is upon the widespread knowledge of this fable throughout Europe and its translation into other European languages which I base my statement that in Europe the cicada is seen as singing since in the fables (Aesop and La Fontaine) the Cigale spends all summer singing.
The second issue which I found fascinating was that although cigale is translated as cicada in English. The fable is usually translated in English as: The Grasshopper and the Ant.

Now a grasshopper is une sautrelle in French while a cricket is un grillon. A locust is given as une locuste and une sautrelle which makes sense given the fact that as I noted in my previous post “The Weeping of the Cicadas. Part 1: The Name of a bug” that under certain conditions certain species of grasshoppers become locusts.  The whole transformation thing is indeed quite fascinating especially in how certain conditions trigger morphological and behavioural changes. From what I have gathered it starts with changes in neuromorphology which in turn triggers physiological and behavioural changes. But as intriguing as this is I will resist talking about it and promise to cover it soon in my blog Flora and Fauna – Plants and Critters which is the appropriate place for such a topic. Besides to date that blog has been too heavily on plants and very light on animals.
But back to the issue of the cicadas in relation to the fable of “The Grasshopper and the Ant” which in French is something quite different from the English. I did a bit of research and sure enough the anomaly applies to other European languages.

Strangely it appears that the Latin languages (such as French, Italian and Spanish) use the word for cicada while the Germanic Languages (such as German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish and English) refer to a grasshopper. The reason for these very distinct families of languages choosing a different insect in the fable is, is a mystery to me.

Here are the translations to illustrate the difference:

French: La cical e la formi
Italian: La cicala e la formica

Spanish: La cigarra y la hormiga
English: The Grasshopper and the Ant

Dutch: De mier en de sprinkhaan
German: Die Ameise und die Heuschrecke

Danish: Den dovne græshoppe
Swedish: Myran och Grasshopper

(German)  Heuschrecke = Grasshopper/ locust
(German) Grashüpfer = grasshopper

(German)  Zikade / Zirpe = cicada

(Danish) græshoppe = grasshopper
(Danish) cikade = cicada

(Dutch) cicade = cicada
(Dutch) sprinkhaan=grasshopper

(Swedish) cicada = cicada
(Swedish) gräshoppa = grasshopper

(French) cigale = cicada
(French) sautrelle = grasshopper

(Italian) cavalletta  =grasshopper/locust
(Italian) cigala = cicada

(Spanish) Saltamontes = grasshopper
(Spanish) cigala = cicada

It would be interesting to discover if the choice in insect has a similar linguistic bias in other language families.
Now getting back to the Samoan-English translation issue of weeping versus singing, I found it interesting that G.B.Milner’s Samoan Dictionary uses the following example under the entry in the Samoan-English section:

Na sau ia i le tagi o ālisi: He came at the time when the cicadas begin to chirp

I am not sure why given the cultural association throughout European languages of cicadas as singing that Milner used the word “chirp”. “Chirp” just does not go with that sound. Baby birds’ chirp, even crickets might chirp but ... “chirp” just does not capture the ethereal yet chthonic susurration that cicadas make. It’s a light airy song that pulsates with a raw power that seems to come from the depths of the earth itself and overwhelms everything. (And yes I have been dying to use the word susurration).
It is no wonder that in ancient Greco Roman culture the cicadas were a symbol of immortality and resurrection. To them the cicada was an ancient symbol with multiple meanings including spiritual realisation and spiritual ecstasy. They believed that the cicadas which were sacred to Apollo sang in intoxicated ecstasy related to that of the dionysaic bacchae and maenad.

Now before I finish I just want to clarify something. The Samoan words tagi and fetagisi have a similar meaning to the English words cry and crying in that aside from the cry as in sounds of sorrow and tears it can also mean to cry as in make a noise in general or in pain or joy. In this case a direct translation of the term fetagisi alisi would be the cries of the alisi.

So the question is: what translation would be most accurate? Or perhaps we should ask: what translation would be more appropriate?

I think that as Economists love to say: It all depends.
Because it does! If you want to get the meaning across you would refer to “the cicadas singing”. If you wanted to do a literal translation you might go with “the cries of the cicadas” or if you want to be more lyrical or evocative of sorrow for some reason, you could go with “the weeping of the cicadas” or some other translation depending on what your intention is.

In my case I needed it for a title of something I was writing which evoked that moment at dusk when the cicadas started to sing but which for me as a child I thought of as weeping hence the title which I originally came up with and ended up sticking with, “The Weeping of the Cicadas.”

Some interesting facts:
La Fontaine’s  Fables written by Jean de la Fontaine were which were published in several volumes between 1668 to 1694 CE are classics of French Litterature.

Aesop's Fables also known as the Aesopica is a collection of fables attributed to Aesop believed to have lived in Ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE.
The Panchatantra is an Indian collection of animal fables whose written Sanskrit origins are believed to date from the 3rd Century BCE and are based on older oral sources including the Buddhist Jataka Tales.

Additional details:
For a fascinating discussion of La Fontaine's Fables adaptation of Aesop's “the Grasshopper and the Ant” in his “La cigale et la fourmi” and its relevance to the ancien regime visit

La Cigale et la fourmi

by Jean de La Fontaine

La cigale ayant chanté
Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue :
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.
Elle alla crier famine
Chez la fourmi sa voisine,
La priant de lui prêter
Quelque grain pour subsister
Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.
« Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,
Avant l’août, foi d’animal,
Intérêt et principal. »
La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse :
C’est là son moindre défaut.
« Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud ?
Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.
— Nuit et jour à tout venant
Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
— Vous chantiez ? J’en suis fort aise :
Eh bien ! Dansez maintenant. »


Sunday, 18 November 2012

The weeping of the Cicadas. Part 1: The Name of a Bug

The Weeping of the Cicadas. Part 1: The Name of a Bug

This is a translation issue that I raised a while ago on a Linked in group Fono Samoa as well as Facebook. I have been working on and off on a book entitled “The Weeping of the Cicadas” and wanted to check if my translation was correct.  Technically the title in Samoan is “A fetagisi alisi” which I would have translated as “When the cicadas weep” but for lyrical reasons I exercised my  poetic license to use “The Weeping of the Cicadas” which would probably translate as “O le tagi o alisi” or perhaps more accurately “O le fetagisiga o alisi”.

The title comes from the admonishment given by elders in Samoa to children about being sure to return home in the evening before nightfall for evening prayers.
Usually we were told “ia e foi mai ae le’i fetagisi alisi” or alternatively “ia e foi mai pe a fetagisi alisi” the first basically means to return before the alisi start to fetagisi while the second basically allows a little bit more time in that you were to return once the alisi started to fetagisi. Although the first version was most often the one used since everyone knows that if you allow any room for interpretation, kids will find some way of stretching things to fit.

The reason I did not translate alisi and fetagisi above is because these were the two words that were the ones that I found myself wondering about for several reasons. Initially I translated them as cicadas weeping. But then for each word I realised that maybe I was wrong in my interpretation.
First of all there was the problem of what an alisi was. All I know is that was a bug that made this sound at dusk which as indicated was the signal to be home or else -

Now the problem that I have found in the past not only with translating words from Samoan to English or French to English and vice versa is that sometimes not only do some words have several meanings which means that in interpreting and translating you need to know which one is applies in that specific instance as illustrated in the case of when is a chateau not a castle? LINK. In other cases one language may lump a whole host of things under one word that in the other language are very distinct and have separate words for
This lumping of things under one word is the case with the alisi. Like I said all I remember is that it was a bug that made that noise at dusk. But lots of bugs do that. Well in this specific case crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas. So I went hunting for them on-line to find photos and what I found did not help resolve the problem that much.

First I found crickets which looked like the bugs we used to find teeming in the chicken shed especially in the feed storage room as well as outside in the long grass. Back then we referred to these as mogamoga which is cockroach. Except in reality there are a number of bugs that get tagged with that label which are not related to cockroaches at all (like the poor crickets which for all this time I thought were a species of cockroach). Some are the big brown cockroaches which are simply mogamoga while others are given a suffix to further identify them like the black stink bug which is referred to as a mogomoga sauga. Although even in that case I have heard other types of stink bugs called mogomoga sauga so all that really means is that it is a bug that smells bad. At least the black one is actually a species of cockroach but the others that I have had the misfortune of crossing that are a completely different species of insect. I think it would be safe to say that they are not even of the same Order.
However, since this is a blog about etymology rather than entomology I’m not going to discuss the taxonomy of these critters. Maybe I will cover it in my blog Flora and Fauna –Plants and Critters someday. So let us get back to identifying the elusive alisi. And they were elusive because whenever you tried to find them they would all shut up and wait for you to go away before starting up again.

So mistaking crickets for cockroaches was just the beginning of the problem. I also found that grasshopper looking insects were another type of cricket (it seems that sometimes the term gets used interchangeably by the general public).
The discovery that grasshoppers and cicadas are also referred to as locusts did not help. Although following a bit more research I discovered that while the term locust for cicadas is misnomer locusts are actually certain types of grasshoppers which become locusts in certain conditions. That is their behaviour and morphology radically changes and this transformation turns them into locusts.

But I digress and as fascinating as that is ... I will have to cover that in the more appropriately named Flora and Fauna – Plants and Critters blog.

So back to identifying the alisi. The other creatures that fit the bill were grasshopers. We had lots of these too. And they were called alisi or at least we called them that. I also found cicadas which we also had and distinctly remember being called alisi as well.
So I had three creatures which all made noise at dusk and one was called a mogamoga while the other two shared the title of alisi. Incidently G.B.Milner’s Samoan Dictionary translates alisi as cicada and cricket but strangely makes no mention of grasshoppers.

To be completely honest I am still not sure if the crickets that we maligned by misidentifying them as cockroaches are indeed called mogamoga, or if that was just our incorrect name for them. I have found that often children use the wrong words for things which can lead to problems in the future if these mistakes are not corrected. I realise that language does change over time and that sometimes these changes are due to such “mistakes” however, I will be looking just at such an issue in “There is no such thing as Teine Sa: It is Telesa and Saumaiafe.” Now again forgive me for getting side tracked and let us get back to the mysterious alisi.
I managed to find some sound files to compare the sounds made by the crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas and the noise made by the cicadas was the one that most closely resembled the one I was familiar with which was an intense thrumming that heralded dusk and filled the air with its intoxicating song. I remember always being annoyed that evening prayers coincided with alisi prime time because usually by the time lotu afiafi was over the alisi were silent. I loved listening to them because they had this almost hypnotic effect that carried you to a state of awareness that I can only compare to that reached through meditation. Interestingly I discovered that the Ancient Greeks held the cicadas in high regard. But that alas I will also have to consign covering that in my blog Flora and Fauna – Plants and Critters and get back to the subject at hand.

To cut to the chase after looking at all the information I decided that I would use cicadas although that does not mean that crickets would be incorrect. Also as you will see latter the whole “is an alisi a cicada or cricket or grasshopper question” takes on a completely different and surprising dimension in Part 2 of The Weeping of the Cicadas: To weep or to sing? That is the question.

Friday, 26 October 2012

When is château not a castle?

When is château not a castle?

Grand-Bigard (French-Château de Grand-Bigrad /Dutch-Groot-Bijgaarden) is located in the village of Grand-Bigard in Flemish Brabant (7km west of Brussels) in Belgium.

Above: View of the stone bridge and fortified gatehouse from the entrance to Grand-Bigard.

After a visiting the Floralia Brussels at Château Grand-Bigrad, I was doing some research to get some additional details and information to include in my blog Flora and Fauna - Plants and Critters (link to Flora and Fauna - Plants and Critters) regarding Grand-Bigard. The Grand-Bigard official website (LINK) is in Dutch, English, French, German and Japanese. It was while reading the English version that I started to get confused because the information on the Grand-Bigard official website (and elsewhere) referred to the large main palace-like structure built in the 17th century as the “castle” and the older 30 meter high tower built in the 12th Century with 2 meter thick walls as the dungeon.

Above: The Grand-Bigard web site was referring to the building above as the Castle of Grand-Bigard.
The actual text that provides details about the History of theCastle of Grand Bigard reads:

“[...]. The castle of Grand Bigard, first built in the XIIth (12th) century, is surrounded by a broad moat [...]. A five-arch bridge, headed by two XVIIth (17th) century heraldic apes crosses over to the drawbridge leading to the fortified entrance dating back to the XIVth (14th) century. The castle itself, built in the XVIIth (17th) century, is a vast edifice of remarkably pure style: it is a wonderful example of the Flemish Renaissance, with a long, one-storied main building in pink brick, contrasting beautifully with the white stone mullioned windows and the blue slate roof. The chapel, in the right wing, has remained unchanged for the last three centuries, and the left wing is surmounted by a bulb-shaped roof. Erected around 1347, (i.e. the 14th Century) the dungeon, a massive 30-metre high structure next to the fortified entrance, [...].”

Now ... to me a castle is a fortified structure with basically a military/defensive purpose although it can also double as the residence of royalty or nobility. But what essentially denotes a castle (in English at least) is that it is a structure built for defensive purposes either as a refuge from attack or strategically placed to protect and/or control and/or oversee a geographic location or feature such as a mountain pass, a harbour, main road or a trade or sea route.
I have always understood that the French word château applies both to what in English is referred to as a castle as well as what in English would be more appropriately referred to as a palace. On the other hand, in English, castle signifies a fortified structure which has distinctive features that are associated with it. So if it is not a fortified and easily defended structure then it is NOT a castle at least that is what I always thought which is why the reference to a building which did not look anything like a castle confused me.
PHOTO of Den Steen HEREHet Steen
Above: Het Steen - The Stone Castle in Antwerp

So I did a little bit of research and discovered that the castles as an architectural / military feature were developed during the Middle Ages (i.e. medieval or mediaeval times) in Europe which covers the 5th to the 15th centuries. The castle originated during the medieval period as a private fortified residence of a noble or lord. Also there was a distinction between a palace which is unfortified and a fortress which is not a residence.

Above: The Grand-Bigard web site was referring to the building above  as the dungeon.

Interestingly there appears to be some debate as to what can be called a castle, but this is more in general because the term castle has been misused by some people to refer to all types of fortified structures. For example earlier fortified structures such as Iron Age hill forts have been incorrectly called castles. Also there is the whole issue of similar structures in other parts of the world such as Japan, India etc.
However, I do not want to get into the whole discussion as to why these particular structures are different or what they should be called instead. I think it would be best to leave that for a separate discussion. Instead I will stick to the issue at hand, namely the French-English translation issue of when is a château not a castle.
When I checked my trusty Collins-Robert DictionaryI saw that my initial interpretation was correct. I also discovered a few other interesting things which illustrate the pitfalls faced by translators especially if one is not aware of the existence of multiple meanings that some words may have which can lead to confusion and incorrect translations.
Basically this is what I found:
Collins-Robert gives the French meanings for the English word Castle as Château (fort) tour (chess) roquer (chess).
So basically castle has only one meaning in French if you are talking about a fort. It also means tour (tower in English) and roquer (rook in English) if referring to chess. Incidentally castling (a chess move) is roque.
Then when you look at the French château Collins-Robert clarifies things even more by indicating that château in French means castle if it is ( une forteresse); palace or castle if it is (une résidence royale);  mansion, stately home if it is ( une manoir, gentilhommière) and a chateau if it is (en France).
In other words if your château is a fortress then it is a castle. If it is a royal residence then it is a palace or a castle (i.e. an unfortified royal residence is a palace and a fortified royal residence would be a castle). And if it is a mansion or stately home as appears to be the case with Château de Grand-Bigard then it is not called a castle in English. I would have called it a palace but get the impression that in French the designation of palace is reserved for royal residences so for those residences not belonging to royalty you would need to refer to them as a mansion or a stately home.
However, here comes the tricky part because in English when referring to a château in France you actually call it a chateau. Note that chateau without the “â” ("a" circumflex) is an English word (or more accurately an English loanword from French) while château with the “â” is a French word.
I am not sure if that particular rule is a hard and fast rule or not but suspect that it is a specific loanword adopted to refer to a specific type of structure as in the ubiquitous French chateaus that were built after developments in warfare and siege weaponry (artillery in particular) had rendered medieval fortifications such as castles, keeps and fortified cities obsolete.

The question then is, should the château at Grand-Bigard be called a mansion, manor house, country home, stately home or a chateau (without the"a" circumflex)? Could you argue that since French is one of the official languages in Belgium then the rule applies to Belgian châteaux or would it be more accurate to say that the English loanword chateau ONLY applies to French châteaux as in those in France as Collins-Robert implies when it indicates that a châteaux is a chateau if it is in France?
I could be wrong but my interpretation is that the English loanword “chateau” specifically applies to French châteaux. So the Grand-Bigard châteaux should be a referred to as a Manor House or Stately Home. However, I have seen some references that argue otherwise indicating that chateau applies to any structure called a châteaux in a French speaking country which would cover France, Belgium, Switzerland and Monacco.

I could be difficult and ask if that applies only to the French speaking parts of Belgium and Switzerland (Brussels, Wallonia and Romandy regions) or if it can be used in the whole country, but I will not? However, joking aside it is an interesting and relevant question after all Grand-Bigard is in Flemish Brabant which is Dutch speaking.

Then there is the question as to whether or not this applies to Quebec and African countries where French is spoken in reference to any such structures that may exist. I'm just wondering.


Above: View of Grand-Bigard Keep on the left with the Grand-Bigard Manor House on the right.

In essence Grand-Bigard dates from the 12thCentury and is surrounded by a moat. The stately home was built in the 17th Century and is considered a fine example of the Flemish Renaissance. The Keep dates from the 12thCentury. This is a fortified tower which was built around 1347 with walls two meters thick and is composed of four stories rising up to thirty meters.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Blood of Souls. A Blog on language, translation and etymology

This is a blog on language, translation, etymology and other issues related to language and the use and misuse of words. The Blog title “The Blood of Souls”, alludes to a few quotes on language that I resonated with my own views about language:
 “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow”

                Oliver Wendell Holmes’

 “To have another language is to possess a second soul"


"Such simple words! But words are mighty things;
They cast us down, or lift us up to rest;
They charm and strengthen, till our angel sings
The last of all the life-songs, and the best."

                Sharah Doudney