In Search of the World's Best Proverbs

04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Don't drown in a glass of water

Today's digital docents -- our phones, cameras, DVDs, car navigation systems, and iPhones -- can create a virtual language-immersion experience any of us can dive into. This fortuitous conspiracy happened rather suddenly, and by accident, and it's magical. Even more magic awaits the language learner in the form of old-fashioned proverbs.

Not only do proverbs teach language but culture as well. Proverbs often embody what can be most pleasing about learning another language -- a surprising change in perspective. Besides, they can make us laugh.

The power of proverbs to be all those things is what motivated Levenger to publish Gnomologia, the original source material (from several different languages) that inspired Ben Franklin to write his Poor Richard's Almanack.

Lost and found in translation

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell contrasts Franklin's American "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise" with the Chinese "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich." The proverb shows the Chinese emphasis on the kind of brutally hard work necessary to grow rice profitably in tiny plots, and illustrates the different perspectives in Eastern and Western cultures.

When it comes to Spanish, all of us already know one proverb: Mi casa es su casa. It's more poetic than the English Make yourself at home. Perhaps it's this, along with its easily understood translation, that explains why Americans have adopted Mi casa es su casa in its original Spanish.

There are other cases where the Spanish equivalent is better than the English version. For example, El que madruga, Dios le ayuda. (He who gets up early, God helps.) Not only does this rhyme, which is an advantage for a proverb, but in my opinion, it's far more appealing than the English, The early bird gets the worm. I still remember hearing that utterance as a child and thinking, "Yuck! I'll stay in bed." Who wouldn't prefer God's help to a gooey worm?

In other cases, I consider the English version superior, as in the Spanish proverb Quien mucho abarca, poca aprieta. (He who grasps for too much, holds on to little.) That's not bad, but it's not nearly as vivid or persuasive as the English A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

I have to give the nod to the Spanish in two other proverb contests: For the English, Don't make a mountain out of a molehill, the Spanish say, No te ahogues en un vaso de agua. (Don't drown in a glass of water.) And for the uninspired English saying, It's a small world, Spanish speakers knowingly offer El mundo es un pañuelo. (The world is a handkerchief.)

But my favorites are rhyming Spanish proverbs that have no English equivalent.

El que no oye consejo, no llega a viejo. (He who doesn't listen to advice won't arrive at old age.) And especially De medico, poeta y loco, todos tenemos un poco. (The doctor, poet and lunatic, we all have a little.) Think how often you could use that one, like when you hand someone an aspirin or a bit of wisdom, or forget something obvious.

My hat's off to Simon and Schuster's Pimsleur language instructors for these proverbs they wisely add to their Spanish audio program.

From mala to worse, with a smile

I was attempting to show off my new Spanish proverb prowess to my friend Tami Jordan Brook, who listened with the patience of the grade-school teacher she is. She teaches French, but tossed a delicious Spanish saying back at me:

De Guatamala a Guatapeor.

This, Tami explained, is the wordplay Spanish speakers use to say "from bad to worse," since mala means bad and peor means worse. There is no actual Guatapeor, of course, so it's hard to say the line without smiling.

Part of Latino culture, I'm learning, is to joke in the face of difficulty, and what a happy and useful habit that is, especially these days.

So how about you, dear reader? Can you share a proverb from another language? I'm all ears.