Beyond Words - Language Blog

How to Translate a Proverb

Literal word-for-word translation does not work for popular sayings such as proverbs.

To properly translate a proverb requires several steps, and it often requires a translator to delve deeper into the culture of the source and target languages to determine the idiomatic translation.

Here are a few tips for translating proverbs, along with some examples from the French, Spanish, and Russian languages:

Tips for translating Proverbs

Proverbs often have an equivalent in the target language. However, even if a linguistic equivalent exists, there may be cultural differences to consider. For example, translation into English could vary based on whether the target is the Uk or the US.

It often helps to determine the origin of the proverb, especially if it isn’t an entirely common saying. An obscure literary proverb should not be translated into a very familiar proverb in the target language. It is best to aim for equivalence between the proverb’s standing within the context of the source culture and the target.

Often, proverbs deal directly with societal customs that might not translate directly to certain other societies. In these cases, it might help to find a saying that approximates the intended message of the proverb and use that.

Ultimately, the challenges of translating proverbs depend on the case at hand, and therefore, it it is best for translators to adjust their method on a case by case basis. With that said, here are a few examples of how specific proverbs could be translated:

French Proverbs

Il ne faut jamais dire, “Fontaine, je ne boirai pas de ton eau!”
(One should never say, “Fountain, I will not drink your water!”)
Or, simply: Never say never

Avec des ‘si’ et des ‘mais,’ on mettrait Paris dans une bouteille.”
(With ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ one could put Paris in a bottle.)
Or, If ifs and ands were pots and pans there’d be no work for tinkers’ hands.

Coeur qui soupire n’a pas ce qu’il désire.
(The heart that sighs does not have what it desires.)

Il faut tourner sa langue sept fois dans sa bouche avant de parler.
(Turn the tongue seven times in the mouth before speaking.)
Or, Think before you speak.

Il faut manger pour vivre, et non vivre pour manger.
(Eat to live, don’t live to eat.)

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillese pouvait.
(If youth but knew, if old age but could.)

La culture, c’est comme la confiture : moins on en a, plus on l’étale.
(Culture is like jam: the less one has the more one spreads it.)

Le sens commun n’est pas si commun.
(Common sense is not so common)
– Voltaire

Spanish Proverbs

No hay refran que no sea verdadero.
(There is no proverb that is not true.)
– Don Quixote

En tierra de ciegos el tuerto es rey.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo.
The devil knows more for being old than for being the devil.

Mas se perdió en Cuba.
More were lost in Cuba.
(Worse things happened at sea; It’s not the end of the world.)

Arbol que crece torcido jamás su tronco endereza.
A tree that grows crooked will never straighten its trunk.

Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres.
Tell me whom you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are.
(You are the company you keep.)

Amar y no ser amado es tiempo mal empleado.
Of all pains, the greatest pain, is to love, but love in vain.
(Translation from poem by Abraham Cowley)

Russian Proverbs

Близок локоть, да не укусишь. (Blizok lokotok, da ne ukusish.)
Your elbow’s close, but you can’t bite it.
(Meaning: The task only seems easy.)

В гостях хорошо, а дома лучше. (V gostyah horosho, a doma luchshe.)
Being a guest is nice, but being at home is better.

Слово – не воробей: вылетит – не поймаешь. (Slovo — ne vorobey: vyletit — ne poymayesh.)
A word is not a sparrow: once it flies out, you can’t catch it.

Век живи, век учись – дураком помрёшь. (Vek zhivi, vek uchis – durakom pomrosh.)
Live a century, learn a century – you’ll still die a fool.
(The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.)