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Proverbs and Translation: Comparison

For a long time, it was noticed, that the wisdom and the spirit of a nation can be shown through its proverbs and sayings, where the knowledge of proverbs of a particular nation promotes not only a better knowledge of the language but also a better perception of people’s nature and their views.

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The comparison of the proverbs of different societies shows how much in common they have, which in turn, promotes their better mutual understanding and rapprochement. In proverbs, a rich historical experience of the people is reflected, as well as representations connected with labor activity, lifestyle, and culture. In that regard, correct and pertinent use of proverbs gives speeches unique originality and special expressiveness.

Translating proverbs can be considered among the most difficult theoretical problems of untranslatable translation, or traduttore, traditore. “The problem of “untranslatability” arises from the fact that different cultures divide up the universe in different ways, and that their languages, therefore, contain ideas, words, and expressions to describe those different concepts and culture-specific features”(Nolan). In that regard, proverbs are considered communicative phraseological units, which represent the purpose of predicative offers – reaction to the events of the reality, and a stimulus to people’s actions. The usage of proverbs assumes a high degree of figurativeness and emotionality, which is frequently caused by the special purposes of the one who uses these proverbs. Analyzing texts it is found out, that very much unusual for certain phenomena to be described in sentences in the form of proverbs. The unexpectedness of the occurrence of a proverb in the text complicates its translation. Accordingly, aside from untranslatability issues regarding proverbs, some proverbs are difficult to translate, or depends on several factors rather than literal translation to transfer the meaning of the proverb. In that regard, to understand properly a proverb translated from another language, literal translation cannot serve its purpose, which might lead to that the original proverb will lose its meaning, and result in an incorrect interpretation.

The definitions of proverbs can occupy the minds of philosophers and scholars from ancient times, where differing in their approaches they might be too vague to cover and extensive, leading to imprecise definitions. In that regard, more or less precise definition combined from several statements defines a proverb as: “a concise statement of an apparent truth which has [had or will have] currency among the people” (Mieder), and while the proverbs can be used for centuries, fall out of circulation, or newly coined, there are still short, generally known sentences that contain wisdom, truths, and morals.

The roots of proverbs’ occurrence of proverbs are very diverse. To become a proverb, a statement should be apprehended and adopted by ordinary simple people. In such a matter, the statement’s primary source might be often forgotten. Having turned to a proverb, it becomes a part of public consciousness; where for the person using the proverb, it is not important who thought it up it. It is possible to unmistakably assume, that any proverb has been created by a certain person in certain circumstances. However, for very many old proverbs the source of their origin is completely lost. Therefore, it will be more correct to state, that proverbs have a folk origin, and that their primary source can be found in people’s collective mentality. In a set of statements summarizing the daily experience, the meaning of a word, developed into a proverb form gradually, without any obvious declaration.

In terms of the awareness when translating proverbs, the case is similar to the translation of figurative language, where the most common mistake is “not recognizing figurative or idiomatic language, and translating it literally.” (Nolan, p. 67 ). A result of such a situation can be an embarrassing moment for the interpreter or the person using the proverb in another context., e.g. translating the proverb, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” (Nolan, p. 67). The aforementioned proverb means not to overdo something, while literal translation might imply a nonproper situation.

Accordingly, a concept of equivalence is commonly used when translating idioms and proverbs, which is a “type of modulation and ‘a linguistic sub-discipline of pragmatics’ which is concerned with the use of language in different cultures.”(Ni. In that regard, using completely different stylistic or structural methods might get the message more clearly rather than translating literally, e.g. a Chinese idiom translated like spending money like earth, which implies overspending of a person, might be well received if equivalence was used “spend money like water.” The equivalence might be used due to geographical reasons and corresponding perceptions of a common matter, where the Chinese lived on the continent, and thus the water and earth was common to them, while in England people lived on an island (Ni). In that sense, for the proverb to be translated correctly, the interpreter should know the original meaning, and the equivalent in the target language for the proverb’s message to be received.

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Additionally, translators and bilingual speakers acknowledge two types of proverbs, where one proverb in a different language has the same meaning but different structure, vocabulary, and metaphors. This type of proverbs has different origins in their respective language, and accordingly, in this type, the equivalence of the words is specifically emphasized. Another type the proverbs which in different languages are identical, e.g. German, English, and Slavic languages of Europe. The aforementioned type usually poses a difficulty, neither for the interpreter nor for the listener to interpret the meaning of the proverb (Mieder).

This paper states that a correct understanding of the translated proverb is related to the way the proverb was translated, either literally or figuratively with an equivalent meaning.

The design of this study is quantitative, survey-based research. The participants of the study (N=20), were college students who agreed to fill the electronic forms sent to them by email. The students were asked to fill the survey that was sent to them and contained 8 items. The translation style, either literal or equivalent served as the independent variables that were manipulated, as well as an additional external variable was added for the usage of translation in context or not. The dependant variable was the ability to correctly perceive the true meaning of the proverb.

In the survey, two out of ten items were personal questions related to age and gender and were included for informational purposes. The survey was conducted, so that translated proverbs had four possible answers regarding their meaning, which should be chosen by the participants. The survey can be seen in Appendix 1.

Questions 1,2, and 4 were literary translations of Russian and German proverbs, while 3, 5, and 6 were equivalent proverbs. Regarding the questions with literal translation only 7 participants out of twenty could answer the question correctly, while regarding the English interpretations of the international proverbs, 19 participants have the answer correctly. It can be seen that there is a direct relationship between the translation and the equivalent interpretations, where the latter facilitated the perception of the proverbs. It can be assumed that putting the proverbs, even literary translated into a context might positively affect the ability of the participants to understand the proverbs.

Additionally, the findings of the research confirm the literature review, where the usage of equivalence, implied that the existence of cultural differences that might prevent the people from correctly understanding the literal translation. The study’s implications can be seen through the way translation of culturally specific materials requires a separate approach that differs from the translation of regular materials. Additionally, the limitations of the study can be seen through the differences in the proverbs, which might interfere with the results, as some proverbs might be seen as difficult to perceive in the native language. Additionally, the usage of a control group might have added to the validity of the research, where similar proverbs might be dived between two groups, where each group will be answering either literal translation or interpretive, separate from each other. In that regard, additional research is required to establish similar proverbs for both groups. Nevertheless, it can be seen that a positive correlation can be apparent even though the present survey, which implies, that the results are indicative of the main research problem.


  1. Mieder, Wolfgang. Proverbs : A Handbook. Greenwood Folklore Handbooks. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
  2. Ni, Lili. “For “Translation and Theories””. 2009.
  3. Nolan, James. Interpretation : Techniques and Exercises. Professional Interpreting in the Real World. Buffalo: Multilingual Matters, 2005.

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StudyCorgi. "Proverbs and Translation: Comparison." November 22, 2021.


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