Language Matters May 2010: Proverbs: Origin, Differences with Other Countries, Translation

Dear Language Friend,

Last month we explored the differences between European French and Canadian French. The same language can have so many varieties! To continue with this theme, we will now deal with the differences between expressions and phrases in different cultures. You know, those little sayings we all use; they can be really different from one language to another!

Contributed by Myriam Berrou. Thanks for reading.


Another word is another world

Each culture and each language has its own way to describe the world. To give just one example among many, the Inuktitut has more than a hundred words to refer to “snow”, depending on the color, the substance, etc. The vision of the world changes according to the language used to describe it.

Proverbs, sayings, adages or phrases can vary greatly depending on the language or on the region of the world. They are our cultural inheritance and remind us that every language has a wealthy linguistic history. Do you remember where those expressions come from?


And you, can you remember?

We all use proverbs, adages, sayings or phrases often in everyday life. We all know a few of them, like All that glitters is not gold, He who laughs best, laughs last or in French, Les chiens ne font pas des chats (literally, Dogs don’t make cats), or The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But do we really know how or why they came to be? Some of them are even several centuries old.

For instance, do you know where these expressions come from? And what they originally meant?

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

Every cloud has a silver lining

Fortunately a quick research on the Internet gives us the answers: The expression An apple a day keeps the doctor away dates back to 1866 with a similar sentence published in a magazine. After a few evolutions and variations, we get the sentence we know today. Every cloud has a silver lining first appeared in John Milton’s poem in 1634, Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle.

In general, people don’t know the roots or the original meaning of the most common expressions, but is that really the point? At least they allow us to use words we would never be able to use otherwise. When else would you get to use the word hindmost? Except in the expression, Every man for himself, and the Devil takes the hindmost!

Besides, they are also an inexhaustible source of puns and jokes. They so colourfully illustrate our discourse with funny metaphors such as To have a bee in one’s bonnet or Paddle your own canoe!


Check the differences, a cultural gap?

The differences in proverbs and sayings reflect our cultural differences. Read the following expressions, they mean the same thing in 4 different languages, although the way or the image used for expressing it varies:

The early bird catches the worm

L’avenir appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tot (literally, Future belongs to those who get up early)

El que madruga coge la oruga (literally, Only the one who gets up early catches the caterpillar)

Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund (literally, Morning hour has gold in the mouth)

From a foreign perspective, those differences in the expressions can be really funny. See for instance these French and German expressions!

Ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard (literally, it doesn’t break three legs to a duck. It means that something is really easy, that it is nothing special).

Morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute, sagen alle faulen Leute (literally,Tomorrow, tomorrow, not today, that’s what all the lazy people say or the English equivalent is Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today).

French African proverbs are often very funny, like these: Si un animal vous dit qu’il peut parler, il ment probablement (literally, If an animal tells you that it can speak, it is probably lying) or Tout a une fin, sauf la banane qui en a deux (literally, Everything has an end, only the banana has two)! Many expressions use metaphors with fruits … or animal!


Is translation possible?

You might think that the literal translations that I provided above are not acceptable for a proper and professional translation. But is it possible to translate proverbs, sayings or expressions with all their cultural and linguistic differences?

Of course, with many proverbs and phrases, it is not the literal meaning that is the most important but the metaphor. As their goal is to express a general truth, many phrases have a direct equivalent in other languages.

Yet, it is also very difficult to find an equivalent or a translation for some, for example, Chercher midi à 14 heures (literally, To look for noon at 2 pm, which means to make an issue even more complicated than it already is).

At LingoStar, we are sensitive to these little phrases and expressions. We strive to preserve the cultural differences inherent in the language, while also always taking into account the target audience, in order to find the most accurate translation. Please contact us for a free quote!

We love to explore language differences and puns. It is a fun and interesting way to learn about other cultures. Click “like” on LingoStar Facebook page (LingoStar Translations) and you will learn many new expressions and language jokes with us!