Few Words are Enough to the Wise

Some of the most fascinating, genuine and truthful pieces of human knowledge are not necessarily the result of years of study or research. Instead, they are the result of centuries of human everyday life experience.

You guessed it. Proverbs and sayings.

These short phrases are capable, in a few words, of comprising a vast body of knowledge that is easily and willingly passed from generation to generation.

For their conciseness and teaching value, proverbs and sayings captivate the attention of millions of people whether or not they engage in the study of cultures and languages. For those dealing with foreign languages, learning and translating proverbs is a task that is both challenging and appealing. Although, truth be told, most officially coined proverbs already have one or more officially coined equivalents in most languages. So chances are you will not be necessarily translating them per se but trying to find out the existing recognized equivalent.

Since proverbs convey such a simple yet vast knowledge of human nature that has been transmitted through generations within popular culture, it could be difficult for a new translation to grasp that nuance. So the best you can do as a translator is look for a similar proverb from the other culture that is capable of denoting the same or an approximate message. The words usually change but the lesson needs to be similar.

Coming up with a new translation can be possible but it may affect the end result because many proverbs have already been translated in the past and have equivalents in several languages. In order to retain the proverbial value of a phrase, the translator should select those long coined equivalents that (1) convey the same meaning and (2) are also considered proverbs in the other language.

Sometimes, there is no particular reference where to look. Other times, there simply is not such a thing as a similar proverb.

What can we do then?

In a macro-context, a plain explanatory version will suffice. But how about a micro-context? This is particularly difficult (and sometimes impossible) in short statements, conversations, jokes, etc.

Having an encyclopedic knowledge would be ideal. But it’s not a feasible solution for most of us, normal mortals. However, as most translators know, widening your knowledge of the culture where your languages are spoken is an essential part of doing a great job.

There are also dictionaries and glossaries (both printed and online) that list proverbs, sayings, set phrases, etc.

Now, once you find the equivalent for the one you need to translate. If there’s only one choice, you’ve finished. But there may be more than one alternative. In that case, you will also need to find the equivalent that best suits not only the linguistic context but also the situational context (time, place, culture, social status, etc.), for this is the key to an accurate translation that will convey the same notion as the original text.

Just to mention one example in English…

  • Carrying coal to Newcastle
  • Carrying water to the sea
  • Bringing sand to the beach
  • Teaching Grandma how to sew
  • Preaching to the choir
  • Teaching Grandma how to suck eggs

These are all relatively similar but your selection may vary based on different factors. And I am sure that many languages may also have several possible equivalents that convey similar ideas but differ depending on extra-linguistic reasons.

In other words, it is very important to learn as much as possible about both the language and the culture where such language is spoken. This would not only allow for a better quality translation but it would also make the process easier and quicker for you and the result more natural for the target population.

So, get your personal glossary started.





Leave a Reply