The Ant and the Grasshopper

And other La Fontaine fables

Jean de la Fontaine is he most famous fabulist in Europe after Aesop, from whom he borrowed extensively. He collected fables from all over the world, and re-wrote them in his own style. He was born in 1621. Although he is principally known for his fables, he was also a poet, playwright and novelist. Interestingly, the expression sour grapes, borrowed from a La Fontaine fox fable, has entered the English language under false pretences. As an example, a competitor losing out who suggests that he was tired, or hinted that their opponent used underhand tactics, is scorned with the epithet sour grapes. The accusation is only applicable when someone badly wants something, fails to get it, and then declares that he did not really want it. Nuance!

Chagall’s illustration

Le loup et la cigogne

Les Loups mangent gloutonnement.

Un Loup donc étant de frairie,

Se pressa, dit-on, tellement

Qu'il en pensa perdre la vie.

Un os lui demeura bien avant au gosier.

De bonheur pour ce Loup, qui ne pouvait crier,

Près de là passe une Cigogne.

Il lui fait signe, elle accourt.

Voilà l'Opératrice aussitôt en besogne.

Elle retira l'os ; puis pour un si bon tour

Elle demanda son salaire.

Votre salaire ? dit le Loup :

Vous riez, ma bonne commère.

Quoi ! ce n'est pas encor beaucoup

D'avoir de mon gosier retiré votre cou ?

Allez, vous êtes une ingrate

Ne tombez jamais sous ma patte.

-

The wolf and the stork

Wolves are known to eat greedily.

Having been feasting merrily

And gobbling too hastily

A wolf his life nearly lost

Nearly gave up the ghost

Awe of awe

A bone had got stuck in his craw

As luck would have it, since he had no voice

Rejoice

For, passing by was a stork

Wolfie signals her his woe,

Storkie rushes to the fellow

And in no time gets to work

Extracting the bone, and demanded his fee

You want payment? asks Wolfie

You’re having a laugh, aren’t you Storkie?

Isn’t it more than enough that I kindly let you

Remove your neck from my jaws

Get lost, ingrate before I do you

And avoid coming within reach of my paws

***

La poule aux oeufs d’or

L'Avarice perd tout en voulant tout gagner.

Je ne veux pour le témoigner

Que celui dont la Poule, à ce que dit la fable,

Pondait tous les jours un oeuf d'or.

Il crut que dans son corps elle avait un trésor.

Il la tua, l'ouvrit, et la trouva semblable

A celles dont les oeufs ne lui rapportaient rien,

S'étant lui-même ôté le plus beau de son bien.

Belle leçon pour les gens chiches :

Pendant ces derniers temps, combien en a-t-on vus

Qui du soir au matin sont pauvres devenus

Pour vouloir trop tôt être riches ?

-

The hen that laid golden eggs

Rich men lose all when greed makes them want even more

It suffices to look at the fable old

Of the hen which daily laid an egg made of gold

Man thought that inside her there’d be treasures galore

So he opened her, in an attempt rash and bold

And found her the same as those laying eggs with yolks

Thus the silly ass destroyed his greatest asset

Something which once done could clearly not be offset

Useful lesson can be learnt by rich folks

From night to day how many have we seen

Who overnight became poor when they haven’t been

Resisting scratching the itch

To become more rich

***

Le corbeau et le renard

Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché,

Tenait en son bec un fromage.

Maître Renard, par l’odeur alléché,

Lui tint à peu près ce langage:

“Eh, bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau.

Que vous êtes joli! Que vous me semblez beau!

Sans mentir, si votre ramage

Se rapporte à votre plumage,

Vous êtes le phénix des hôtes de ces bois.”

A ces mots, le corbeau ne se sent pas de joie;

Et pour montrer sa belle voix,

Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tomber sa proie.

Le renard s’en saisit, et dit: “Mon bon monsieur,

Apprenez que tout flatteur

Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute.

Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.”

Le corbeau, honteux et confus,

Jura, mais un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus.

_

The crow and the fox

Brer Bobby Crow, perched on a tree

In his beak an edam or a Brie.

Says wily Willy Fox catching a whiff,

Oh handsome crow,

You’re such a beau

you need no face-lift-

Catch my drift?

For his recherché neologies

He proffers no apologies

In truth sir, if your warblement

Was worth half your feathery garment

You must indubitably,

Be

The phoenix of the hosts of this forest

But, not putting you to the test

Can I beg for a samplement.

Hearing these words, Brer Crow did rejoice

And sets to air his unique voice

Opening wide his beak he drops his cheese

Which wily Willy snaps with ease.

Good sir, he admonished

With a flourish

Know ye that a good listener,

Is in need of a flatterer

Who makes a living by being

A first-class chatterer.

Clearly my lunch was fair payment

For your active enlightenment.

Brer Bobby made a solemn vow

- A bit too late — you will allow

That he’ll never again trip into that slough

***

La cigale et la fourmi

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. »

_

The ant and the grasshopper

Cricket having indulged in song

All summer long

Found himself much deprived

When the cold winds arrived.

Not the smallest herblet

Teeniest tick or wormlet.

He rushed to his neighbour Ant

Begging her to ease her want

Appealing for a wee loan

Of some millet or corn

To keep at bay starvation

Until cometh the new season.

I swear after the harvest

I’ll pay you back with interest.

By nature Ant’s no lender,

God knows she could be kinder.

What? she asked the would-be borrower

Did you do the whole summer?

To one and all, day and night

I sang songs with all my might.

Oh you sang with nonchalance?

Well now’s come the time to dance.

  • + + + + +

Divertimento 1

I attempted what I am calling a Caribbean version of the fable as it is reminiscent of the calypso

Da hoppa he sang a’ summa

but when it changed to winta

he found hisself goin’ unda

not the teeniest morsel mista

of fly or wormlet sista.

He went knock a’

de door of ant his neyba

crying I’m dying of hunga

gizza some grub, be my mudda

Will pay you back wiv interest sista

before the next harvest yea.

Da ant as an insect, busta

he ain’t no great lenda

that’s its least defect I tellyea.

What I askya didja

do when da sun he shined bruda?

Wined and dined? didja?

Night and day, blushed da hoppa

we wuz on a benda

merrymakin’ and singin’ wereya?

Well la la di da!

just hop it hoppa

now go dancin’ digga

Divertimento 2

I could not resist the temptation of committing a betrayal with La Fontaine’s .The milkmaid and her pot of milk, and adapted rather than translated it. Further I thought the moral at the end had better be left alone, but I include it in the original, albeit italicised, and add my own ha’penny worth in conclusion.

LA LAITIÈRE ET LE POT AU LAIT

Pierrette, sur sa tête ayant un Pot au lait

Bien posé sur un coussinet,

Prétendait arriver sans encombre à la ville.

Légère et court vêtue elle allait à grands pas ;

Ayant mis ce jour-là pour être plus agile

Cotillon simple, et souliers plats.

Notre Laitière ainsi troussée

Comptait déjà dans sa pensée

Tout le prix de son lait, en employait l’argent,

Achetait un cent d’ oeufs, faisait triple couvée ;

La chose allait à bien par son soin diligent.

Il m’est, disait-elle, facile

D’élever des poulets autour de ma maison :

Le Renard sera bien habile,

S’il ne m’en laisse assez pour avoir un cochon.

Le porc à s’engraisser coûtera peu de son ;

Il était quand je l’eus de grosseur raisonnable ;

J’aurai le revendant de l’argent bel et bon ;

Et qui m’empêchera de mettre en notre étable,

Vu le prix dont il est, une vache et son veau,

Que je verrai sauter au milieu du troupeau ?

Perrette là-dessus saute aussi, transportée.

Le lait tombe ; adieu veau, vache, cochon, couvée ;

La Dame de ces biens, quittant d’un oeil marri

Sa fortune ainsi répandue,

Va s’excuser à son mari

En grand danger d’être battue.

Le récit en farce en fut fait ;

On l’ appela le Pot au lait

Quel esprit ne bat la campagne ?

Qui ne fait châteaux en Espagne ?

Picrochole, Pyrrhus, la Laitière, enfin tous,

Autant les sages que les fous ?

Chacun songe en veillant, il n’est rien de plus doux :

Une flatteuse erreur emporte alors nos âmes :

Tout le bien du monde est à nous,

Tous les honneurs, toutes les femmes.

Quand je suis seul, je fais au plus brave un défi ;

Je m écarte, je vais détrôner le Sophi ;

On m’élit Roi, mon peuple m’aime ;

Les diadèmes vont sur ma tête pleuvant :

Quelque accident fait-il que je rentre en moi-même.

___

An example of the translator’s betrayal

The dairymaid and her milk pot

To Pierrette, the pot nestling on a pad on her head

Contained more than milk that would fetch so much

She didn’t just see it as the means to buy bread

Or peas or spuds, salt and sugar and such and such.

She was a dreamer, was Pierrette, she imagined

She imagined better things and she grinned.

One day she would have her own goats and cows

And red windows and green doors on her house.

And she knew how to do it, she had her own plan

With a plan in your head, with a plan you can

You can make two quarters equal to one.

She saw herself walking proudly into town

Her pot full of the future, not just cow’s milk

She saw her mended petticoat as if made of silk.

Her hopes had acquired fast sinewy legs

The milk sold, she’d buy no less than a hundred eggs.

These she’d hatch, she’d need three sittings

She’d fight fox and furies to fatten her chicklings.

At first sweet and tiny, then with care so plump and big

She’d then sell them and buy, to fatten, a small pig

She’d then sell the swine for a good price and a half

And use the profit to buy a cow and a calf.

I can see them, smell them she says to herself

My pockets and purses will be full of pelf.

It’s too much, too much, I now have a flock of cattle

To feed them I’ll buy cartfuls of acacia wattle

Out of my way Claribel, shoo shoo Shamrock

Says Pierrette as she actually sees her whole flock

But Shamrock to Mistress Pierrette pays no heed

To avoid him, she jumps, knocks together her feet

Falls down, her milk pot crashing on the ground.

Adieu chicks and pig, farewell cows and house

*

What they knew not, Monsieur de La Fontaine and Kyrios Aesop

Was that Pierrette was not going to let herself be defined by one flop

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.