Over the years I’ve collected foreign proverbs, I just do weird things like that and I’m not going to elaborate. The other day I remembered that I do this, so I started ambling through them. I got hooked. It got to that stage where you really have to pee but have silently resolved to finish reading everything in front of you before breaking concentration. I honestly felt I was on the path to Enlightenment.
One thing that has struck me is how much proverbs reinforce their nations’ stereotypes. The Spanish like honour and vengeance. The French are so blunt it hurts. The Irish only seem capable of making metaphors about drink, the Italians about food. The English have stiff pokers up their bums. Germans are aware of their superiority and basically just mock everyone else (even to the extent of delusionality: “He who would eat in Spain must bring his kitchen along”). Russians are rough and ready. The Japanese are disciplined to the point of psychosis. The Chinese are poetic and zen. These generalisations are not the most sophisticated, but at least one German proverb agrees: “A country can be judged by the quality of its proverbs”.
But childish caricaturing didn’t carry me through this encyclopaedia of allegories. The truth is that proverbs are gifts. Gifts from generations older and wiser. People who have already seen what we will come to see, and can tell us right now what we’d take lifetimes to learn. We may roll our eyes at Granny’s rambles, but one day soon, when we trip on our paths, we’ll remember that she told us to tie our laces.
As the Irish say: “A new broom sweeps clean, but the old brush knows all the corners”.
Granted, you have to sift through sludgeons of bigotry, but little gold nuggets of will wisdom emerge. Here are some of those nuggets:
You’ve got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was. (Irish)
Instruction in youth is like engraving in stone. (Moroccan)
It takes a whole village to raise a child. (Swahili)
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together (supposedly an ‘African proverb’, although I couldn’t find any native sources or even an origin more specific than ‘Africa’. In fact all I could find were a lot of white people reciting the quote and referencing it as an ‘African proverb’. So it’s probably not an ‘African proverb’ at all, but a worthwhile sentiment all the same.)
Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow. (Swedish)
Better give a penny then lend twenty. (Italian)
When the sun rises, it rises for everyone. (Cuban) — the Communist sentiment that humans can’t corrupt.
Do not blame God for having created the tiger, but thank him for not having given it wings. (Indian)
Anger is as a stone cast into a wasp’s nest (also Indian).
Turn your face to the sun and the shadows will fall behind you. (Maori)
It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. (Chinese)
Fall seven times, stand up eight. (Japanese)
Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love. (Turkish)
Coffee and love are best when they are hot. (German)
Watch this space for more.
Read the next instalment!