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. »