PROVERBS are insights into our cultural values, beliefs, and assumptions about human behavior. The fact that they hold a special place for us is evidenced by how carefully we preserve them. They often use grammar and vocabulary different from modern usage and combine words in rhymes so they are easier to remember. But this creates a problem: they rarely translate verbatim (doslova).
To illustrate this further, please allow me to introduce a certain Mr. P and his Slovak friend, pán Pé. They are your typical middle-aged men whose unique quality is that they prefer to speak in proverbs. It's a long family tradition and no accident, since they take after their fathers. Like father, like son (Aký otec, taký syn) would be their very words.
Mr. P and pán Pé are quite cautious, and warn you should measure twice and cut once (dvakrát meraj a raz rež); they love their wives, who they admit aren't physically attractive, because beauty is only skin deep (fyzická krása krásu ducha nezaručí); and they live by the golden rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you (ako sa do hory volá, tak sa z hory ozýva).
Because birds of a feather flock together (vrana k vrane sadá), they often spend time sharing the latest gossip. The other day, they sat down to a cup of coffee and had this conversation:
"How are you feeling today, Mr. P?"
"Fit as a fiddle! (Ako rybička!) And you?"
"Quite fine," Mr. P replied. "You know what they say: in a healthy body lives a healthy spirit (v zdravom tele, zdravý duch)."
Then they fell into a comfortable silence. Though unproductive, this had been their routine for many long years. So simply put: You can't teach an old dog new tricks (starého psa novým trikom nenaučíš).
Then Mr. P inquired: "Have you heard that Mr. G has invested all his money in one stock?"
"Yes, he's really put all his eggs in one basket (vsadil všetko na jednu kartu)," said pán Pé.
"He's also been complaining about his mother-in-law," added Mr. P.
"I suppose she doesn't approve of his business decisions. Still, he should look at the positive. She obviously cares."
"Yes, every cloud has a silver lining (Na všetkom zlom je niečo dobré)," Mr. P said, proud of his razor-sharp wit.
"She must have been upset her when he told her to mind her own business right after the wedding."
"Well, he's made his bed, now he must lie in it (ako si ustelieš, tak ležíš)," Mr. P said, again in his element.
Pán Pé only sighed: "I agree. You reap what you sow. (Ako kto seje, tak žne.)"
Just then, Mr. P spilled a glass of milk while reaching for a cookie.
"Remember: Don't cry over spilled milk (Neplač nad rozliatym mliekom)," Pán Pé said before continuing their conversation.
You see my point. Although most of us wouldn't use proverbs to the point of caricaturing ourselves, it's nice to take advantage of linguistic shortcuts every once in a while when expressing a complex idea. But when doing this in another language, it's good to make sure you get it right. Otherwise, nerob z komára somára (don't turn mosquitoes into donkeys) could be seen as your wish to ban crossbreeding, rather than a request for someone to stop exaggerating (you're making a mountain out of a molehill).
7. May 2007 at 0:00 | Emily Heinz