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.

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