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.
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.”)
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.