Be Alive, Horse….

“A stitch in time saves nine….”

I guess my fascination with proverbs began when I lived in Mexico and had  what I felt was a good command of the language but no familiarity at all with a whole new set of “dichos” – that is, wise little “sayings” and colloquialisms that people learn in their own native languages from a very early age. “Nothing borrowed, nothing owed,” for example – a fine proverb in the land of Puritans. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” and “A stitch in time saves nine” – two cautionary proverbs that advocate for the Practical Life.  “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” appeals to me more, since it allows for a little wiggle room and more adventurous territory.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The point is, I get the gist and purpose of these proverbs I grew up with. But proverbs from another culture sometimes seem to be out of whack – disarmingly so. Since I love words in general, and love the strange way they convey meaning when the object of their attention is indirect (aka poetry), I also love proverbs in other languages, some of which – when I lived in a country where the language slowed me down just enough to pay attention – seemed entirely mysterious to me in terms of  meaning, but charming in terms of the images conjured. My favorite proverb ever – in any language – comes from the Yiddish tradition: A person should want to live, if only out of curiosity (how much nicer than “Curiosity killed the cat.”)

“A person should want to live, if only out of curiosity..”

If you are an aspiring writer, I encourage you to explore translated proverbs. They open you up, as all translation can, to new perspectives.  I dream of returning to Italy someday and speaking Italian well enough to use ANY of the following proverbs:

“Campa cavallo, che l’erba cresce.” [Be alive, horse, because grass grows.]
“Fatti maschi, parole femmine.” [Facts are male, words are female.]
“A buon intenditor poche parole.” [Few words to the good listener.]
“Traduttore, traditore.” [Translator, traitor.]
“Tra il dire e il fare, c’è di mezzo il mare.” [Between doing and saying lies the sea.]
“Se non è vero, è ben trovato.” [If it’s not true, it’s a good story.]
“La morte mi troverà vivo.” [Death will find me alive.]

Be alive horse, because grass grows.

4 responses to “Be Alive, Horse….

  1. I love proverbs, too. My last ms contains quite a few of them, but most of those I made up. Now that’s a fun exercise!

  2. Many thanks for this. I also like the conflicting ones: ‘A rolling stones gathers no moss’ vs ‘A siting hen grows no feathers of her belly’

  3. These are fantastic. I’m a speech/ language pathologist (SLP), and I work with a lot of English Language Learners, parsing out just how much English they have or haven’t mastered. The idioms and proverbs, the prettiest part of a language, are definitely always last.

  4. Making up proverbs was one of the assignments I got from a professor during my MFA program, Ginger. You’re so right – great fun!

    Peter, it would be hard to sort out how to behave, wouldn’t it, based on those conflicting proverbs? Haste makes waste vs. He who hesitates is lost…?

    KVN – I’m convinced that beginning learners of a language should memorize a few proverbs as they go along – first, for the music of them, and second, as cultural curiosities. And maybe even third, the opportunity to use them might come up!

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