Category Archives: Proverbs

“A terrapin and the moon” (月と鼈)

Original Script : 月と鼈

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Tsuki to suppon

Transliteration : A terrapin and the moon

Full Translation : Two completely opposite beings

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : You can think of terrapin as a small turtle. I think it’s other name is a soft-shelled turtle, but it’s basically the same thing except that terrapins are smaller than turtles and stay in the mud of rivers. The reason why they compare a terrapin and the moon is because of the fact that they are similar because they are both round like a circle, but also very different. While the moon is often described as a bright and aesthetic figure up in the sky, a terrapin stays under the dark, wet mud. This proverb is used when comparing two objects or people that are completely different beyond comparison. 

Analysis :

I thought this proverb possibly expresses the Japanese society’s affection for the moon. There are a lot of traditional stories like ‘the story of Genji’ where a character wakes up in the middle of the night and stares at the moon for a long time, admiring its beauty. It was interesting how they chose the moon over the sun, which is also a symbol that is round in shape and admired by a lot of cultures. 

“A Kappa carried away by a river” (河童の川流れ)

Original Script : 河童の川流れ

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Kappa no kawanagare

Transliteration : A Kappa carried away by a river

Full Translation : Even experts make mistakes and no one is perfect

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : Kappa is a Japanese traditional mythical creature that lives in the water. Even though they still can survive outside water, they need to keep themselves moist enough to live. Like this, they are very water-friendly creatures. This proverb talks about how a Kappa is being carried away in the river while they are experts in swimming. It indicates how they have made a mistake and are being carried away. It doesn’t mean that they are dead through! It just means that even an expert makes a mistake sometimes. 

Analysis :

I liked this proverb because it adds humor and makes the audience think about a water-based mythical creature floating around in the river water because of their mistake. Other than the humor, this piece also tells the audience that not everyone is perfect and even experts would make mistakes in certain situations. The origin of this proverb is unknown, but a Korean version of this proverb is called “even a monkey falls off a tree sometimes (원숭이도 나무에서 떨어질때가 있다)”. This Korean version is a possible oikotype of this proverb because Kappas are not believed in Korean societies. Thus, they took out the Japanese mythical creature out of it and replaced it with a monkey, who is an expert in climbing trees and vines. 

“Even cold water will get in your teeth” (喝凉水也塞牙)

Original Script : 喝凉水也塞牙

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Hē liángshuǐ yě sāi yá

Transliteration : Even cold water will get in your teeth

Full Translation : If you are meant to be unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing a proverb that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He told me that since he couldn’t remember in detail and had to ask his parents again, a lot of the dialogue is summarized. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call.

Z : What does it even mean by ‘water getting in my teeth’? It’s something that is not possible because water is a liquid without any smell or taste. This proverb thus means that if you are unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do. If you are trying to drink water and you’re meant to be unlucky, a water will get between your teeth and you will be annoyed by it. 

Analysis :

This short proverb and its explanation added a humor factor in it. Rather than explaining it with other food or drink items, the proverb talks about water ‘getting in one’s teeth’, which is something no one has ever and will ever experience before. This reminded me of the Korean version of this proverb, “an unlucky man will break their nose even if they fall backwards (재수 없는 놈은 뒤로 자빠져도 코가 깨진다)”. In this Korean version of the proverb, it also talks about an impossible combination of happenings; first, one falls backwards and is expected to hurt his backside of his head but second, he ends up breaking his nose, which is located on the front side of their head. This also indicates how unlucky events seem inevitable and unavoidable because it is destined to be so for people. 

“Finding a needle in the sea” (大海捞针)

Original Script : 大海捞针

Phonetic (Roman) Script : dà hǎi lāo zhēn

Transliteration : Finding a needle in the sea

Full Translation : It is as hard as finding a needle in the sea

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing an idiom that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Z : Haha, I think I don’t even need to explain this because the idiom speaks for itself. Finding a needle in the middle of the vast sea is not even close to being possible – it’s impossible. This idiom is used when expressing a situation that is not possible in any way.

Analysis :

This is a very common idiom used in Asian countries, and I believe it is used in other cultures too in different oikotypes. In Korea, there are two versions to this idiom. One is ‘finding a needle in the beach’, which is very similar to the Chinese idiom by my informant. I thought it was very interesting how they both are related to the sea and also how it implies the fact that sea is still not studied enough and no one knows what is down in the deep sea. The other one is ‘finding Mr. Kim in Seoul’, which adds a Korean aspect to it. Kim is one of the most common last names in Korean and Seoul is the capital of South Korea and is well known for its crowdedness since all people gather in Seoul. This Korean version shows that it is impossible to find the ‘Mr. Kim’ one is looking for in the overcrowded city. 

“Do not rest under a bad three and do not drink bad water” (恶木盗泉)

Original Script : 恶木盗泉

Phonetic (Roman) Script : È mù dào quán

Transliteration : Do Not Rest Under a Bad Tree and Do Not Drink Bad Water

Full Translation : Do not do anything bad that you will be shameful in the future regardless of the situation you are in

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing an idiom that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Z : The idiom “do not rest under a bad tree and do not drink bad water” means that you must not do anything that you would be shameful of in the future no matter what situation you are in. You might be in a very tired state and want to rest and drink lots of water for recovery but resting under a bad tree and drinking bad water will influence you in a negative way and you will regret your rash decisions later on. 

Analysis :

This idiom indicates not only that people shouldn’t do anything that will embarrass them later on but also the fact that when a person is tired and desperate, their sense of what is right and wrong might be distorted too. This idiom tells the people that even in those hard times, one must not lose their consciousness and know how to make right choices to prevent the aftermath. 

“3 Cobblers are better than Zhuge Liang” (三臭皮匠葛亮)

Original Script : 三臭皮匠葛亮

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Sān chòu píjiàng gé liàng

Transliteration : 3 Cobblers Are Better Than Zhuge Liang

Full Translation : Two heads are better than one 

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing a proverb that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He told me that since he couldn’t remember in detail and had to ask his parents again, a lot of the dialogue is summarized. This piece was collected over a phone call. 

The informant started off with who Zhuge Liang is; Zhuge Liang is a very well known Chinese politician and a military strategist that is known for its excellent strategic skills that have led past China to victory in multiple battles. The informant implied how he is the symbol of intelligence and often admired and looked up by people. However, cobblers are jobs that are not always favored and are less significant when compared to a nationally-known military strategist. However, this quote is meant to show how 3 less-significant people can beat Zhuge Liang, who is an individual. 

Analysis :

Zhuge Liang is an admired figure in Chinese society for its intelligence and military strategy. On the other hand, cobblers are considered as an ignorant people when compared to Zhuge Liang. In this proverb, it is implied that no matter how ignorant cobblers are in comparison to Zhuge Liang, when three cobbers come together and think as a whole, Zhuge Liang, he himself as an individual cannot win the cobblers. This shows that more than one person is always better than an individual regardless of their intelligence and educational levels. The comparison to Zhuge Liang also shows how Chinese people admire Zhuge Liang as a smart intelligent person. 

I wanted to add the Korean version of this proverb: “It is better to hold a single piece of white paper together with someone rather than yourself (백지장도 맞들면 낫다)”. While a piece of paper is very light and everyone can simply carry it without any hardships, it is always better to hold it with someone. This can be translated into no matter whether an issue might be easy to handle, it is always better to do it with someone. 

“Not knowing is the medicine” (모르는게 약이다)

Main Piece : 

“모르는게 약이다.”

Original Script : 모르는게 약이다

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Morununge yak-ee-da

Transliteration : Not knowing is the medicine.

Full Translation : There is truth that is better off not knowing. 

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : So this proverb, which sounds more like a common saying is used when, for example, some person is trying to dig up information that will be harmful to them. For example, if your friend is trying to dig into a gossip full of drama, you would tell her, “there is truth that is better off not knowing”. This saying translates into how knowing unneeded facts can be harmful to you and thus makes not-knowing a medicine. 

Analysis :

I personally liked this example because this is a saying that I, myself use it a lot too. This is one of the best known proverbs in the Korean society, and it applies to a lot of situations. This proverb reminds me of my grandmother telling me this proverb whenever I became curious about what the adults were talking about whenever we had big family gatherings. Whether it is a school gossip or politics, there are some things that are better off not knowing. I like how the description of ‘knowing unneeded facts’ is considered harmful and not knowing is not even neutral but a medicine for one. 

“The bird will listen to what you say during daytime and the mouse will listen to what you say during nighttime” (낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다)

Main Piece : 

“낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다”

Original Script : 낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Natmalun saegadutgo bammalun jwigadutneunda

Transliteration : The bird will listen to what you say during daytime and the mouse will listen to what you say during nighttime

Full Translation : There will always be someone who listens to what you are saying, so be careful everytime when you speak

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : This is a pretty common one too. I don’t think this only pertains to the Korean society but it is true that you need to be aware of what you say no matter what. If you are gossiping about someone in public, actually, even in private, you never know who will be listening to you and spread the word. It’s kinda sad because it seems like it’s trying to tell us that there is no one to trust in this world but also tells us that you, yourself, need to shut your mouth and don’t make unnecessary comments about others and mind your own business. 

Analysis :

This proverb was very interesting because of the animals who will be listening to the person talking. We can also learn that a lot of Korean proverbs have animals taking action. By introducing the bird and the mouse as listeners, it makes the audience imagine birds flying around and mice running around to spread the message of the gossip. Upon my research, I also found a very interesting article that was published by JoongAng Ilbo in 2010, that shows a possible scientific explanation to this. This article talked about the movement of the sound; sound moves from cold places to hotter places due to refraction and during the day, the sound moves from the ground to the sky due to the sunlight and its heat. On the other hand, during the night, the air cools down as the sun sets and the ground is comparatively warmer because of the lingering heat inside the soil. Thus, during the day, the birds are more likely to hear what someone is saying because they are in the sky, and during the night, the mice are more likely to listen to what someone is saying. Before this project, I just thought this proverb was only meant to give a lesson to be aware of what you say to others. However, learning a scientific background made this quote more interesting and I wonder if any more proverbs have a scientific explanation to it too. 

“A pearl necklace on a pig’s neck” (돼지 목에 진주목걸이)

Main Piece : 

“돼지 목에 진주목걸이”

Original Script : 돼지 목에 진주목걸이

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Dwaeji mok-eh jinju mokgul-ee

Transliteration : A pearl necklace on a pig’s neck

Full Translation : One must live within one’s means

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : So what do you think what it means by a pearl necklace on a pig’s neck?

E : Maybe that it doesn’t go along well? It doesn’t fit?

S : Basically, yeah. A pig will never wear a pearl necklace and even if it did, it won’t know the value of it, whether it is high or low. This proverb means that one must live within one’s means and know their own value. If one doesn’t live within their ‘range’ but only seeks for valuable objects, they will only look like a pig with a pearl necklace. 

E : Haha, I think that’s a very straightforward explanation of it – a pig with a pearl necklace.

S : It’s supposed to give that direct meaning, I guess.

Analysis :

This proverb shows the difference of a human and an animal and that they have different values for objects. While a human might admire expensive cars and jewelry, an animal would not value those objects but would rather value a good meal. This hints at a humor by comparing two unlikely matters; an expensive pearl necklace and a pig, which is an animal that is usually perceived to be dirty. 

Armenian Proverb About Reputation

հոգի գնա, ոչ թե անունը

Transliteration: hogi gna, voch’ t’e anuny

Translation: The soul can rise, but the name stays.

Better to die than to have your image/name tarnished.

Background Information: Armenian proverb used by Armenians around the world.

Context: I was told this proverb by the informant when I was interviewing him about his culture. I was specifically interested in learning about Armenian proverbs because of the wide use of them in the Armenian culture.

Thoughts: I think that this proverb definitely provides a glimpse into the Armenian culture. It shows how paramount image can be in Armenian society. It would be better for your soul to leave your body than to have a bad reputation. I think it is interesting to note the matter of fact quality of this proverb. It lacks much use of figurative speech and is very straightforward about its motive/meaning.