Russian Proverbs.
How to translate?


Translation of Russian proverbs into English has always been a difficult task to cope with. The Russian and English languages differ appreciably from each other, as well as the Russian and English cultures. Being formed in a different historical, cultural and mental environment, Russian and English proverbs often use completely different images and associations to convey the same or similar thought.

For example, the Russian proverb Семь бед – один ответ (Pronunciation: Sem' bed – adin atvet) is literally translated as follows: "Seven misfortunes - one response." It is used to express the determination to do something risky or dangerous and, at the same time, the hope that it will be possible to flinch from danger. There is no an equivalent proverb in English. Instead, there is some similarity with the English proverb One might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. One says it when one is going to be punished for something so one decides to do something worse because one's punishment will not be any more severe (the interpretation is according to thefreedictionary.com).

Luckily, there are Russian proverbs that are easily translated into English because they have equivalents in English. For example:

- Скупой платит дважды. (Pronunciation: Skupoi platit dvazhdy)
If you buy cheaply, you pay dearly.

- Старый друг лучше новых двух. (Pronunciation: Staryi drug luchshe novykh dvukh)
Everything is good when new, but friends when old.
 

Actually, Russian proverbs can be divided into three categories:

  1. Russian proverbs that have exact English equivalents;
  2. Russian proverbs that have approximate English equivalents;
  3. Russian proverbs that do not have English equivalents.

 

What strategies can be used for translation of Russian proverbs into English?

  1. An optimal translation decision is to find an exact equivalent for a Russian proverb in English. However, it's not always possible.
  2. If there are no exact equivalents, approximate equivalents (English proverbs that have a similar meaning to that of the Russian proverb, but consist of different lexical items) can do provided that their stylistic and emotional nuances agree with the Russian proverb. If not, the interchange is impossible.
  3. When a suitable match can not be found, a Russian proverb can be translated by paraphrase using related or unrelated words.
  4. Literal (or word-for-word) translation is another way out when a match for a Russian proverb does not exist.


Actual examples of translation of Russian proverbs teach better than any theory. From Russian literature, I've gathered some examples of Russian proverb translations. Here they are:

(Stressed Russian vowels are marked with red in multisyllable words. Soft Russian consonants are marked with the sign " ' ".)

1. Russian proverb: Береги платье снову, а честь смолоду.

  • Pronunciation: Beregi plat'e snovu, a chest' smoladu.
  • Literal translation: Take care of your clothes when they are new, and of your honor when you are young.
  • Meaning: One should look after one's good name, dignity and honor from one's youth up. This phrase is said to young people as a parting wish at the beginning of their life's journey.
  • English variant: Look after your clothes when they're spick and span, and after your honor when you're a young man.

Example of translation:

Родители мои благословили меня. Батюшка сказал мне: "Прощай, Петр. Служи верно, кому присягнешь; слушайся начальников; за их лаской не гоняйся; на службу не напрашивайся; от службы не отговаривайся; и помни пословицу: береги платье снову, а честь смолоду".

А.С. Пушкин, "Капитанская дочка"

My parents gave me their blessing, and my father said to me: "Good-bye, Petr; serve faithfully he to whom you have sworn fidelity; obey your superiors; do not seek for favours; do not struggle after active service, but do not refuse it either, and remember the proverb, 'Take care of your coat while it is new, and of your honour while it is young.'"

A.S. Pushkin,The Daughter of the Commandant
Translated by M. Home

2. Russian proverb: Жить, как у Христа за пазухой.

  • Pronunciation: Zhyt', kak u Khrista za pazukhai.
  • Literal translation: To live in the bosom of Christ.
  • Meaning: To live in abundance, to live well with little effort.
  • English variant: To live off the fat of the land.

Example of translation:

Так вот, друзья, и жили мы,
Как у Христа за пазухой,
И знали мы почет.

Н.А. Некрасов, "Кому на Руси жить хорошо"

In past times we lived,
As they say, 'in the bosom
of Christ,'
and we knew
What it meant to be honoured!

N.A. Nekrasov, Who Can Be Happy And Free In Russia?
Translated by J.M. Soskice

3. Russian proverb: Жизнь прожить — не поле перейти.

  • Pronunciation: Zhyzn' prazhyt' — ne pole pereiti.
  • Literal translation: Living life is not like crossing a field.
  • Meaning: Life doesn't consist completely of pleasure, enjoyment, etc.
  • English variant: Life is not all beer and skittles.

Example of translation:

Но продуман распорядок действий,
И неотвратим конец пути.
Я один, все тонет в фарисействе.
Жизнь прожить — не поле перейти.

Б. Пастернак, "Гамлет"

But the plan of action is determined,
And the end irrevocably sealed.
I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:
Life is not a walk across a field.

B. Pasternak, Hamlet
Translated by L. Pasternak Slater, sister of B. Pasternak

4. Russian proverb: Аппетит приходит во время еды.

  • Pronunciation: Apetit prikhodit va vremia yedy.
  • Literal translation: The appetite comes during eating.
  • Meaning: A desire to do something comes/increases as an activity begins/proceeds.
  • English variant: Appetite comes with eating.

Example of translation:

Обнимая Половцева, Никольский сказал:
- Мужество и еще раз мужество! Вот чего не хватает офицерскому корпусу доброй старой императорской армии! Засиделись вы, будучи в учителях средних школ, в агрономах. А традиции? Славные традиции русской армии, вы про них забыли? Но ничего. Вы только начните по приказу тех, кто думает за вас, а там... А там - аппетит приходит во время еды!

М. Шолохов, "Поднятая целина"

Nikolsky took Polovtsev in his arms and said: "Courage and yet more courage! That is what the officers of our fine old Imperial Army lack! You have grown stale in your jobs as petty schoolteachers and agronomists. What of our traditions? The glorious traditions of the Russian Army? Have you forgotten them? But never mind. Just make a start as those who think for you have ordered, and then - appetite comes with the eating!

M. Sholokhov, Virgin Soil Upturned
Translated by R. Daglish

5. Russian proverb: Яйца курицу не учат.

  • Pronunciation: Yaitsa kuritsu ne uchat.
  • Literal translation: Eggs don't teach a hen.
  • Meaning: Don't give advice to someone who has more experience than you.
  • English variant: Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs.

Example of translation:

У розового домика прогуливался Коля. Увидев Остапа, шедшего впереди, он вежливо с ним раскланялся и подошел к Воробьянинову. Ипполит Матвеевич сердечно его приветствовал. Коля, однако, не стал терять времени.
- Добрый вечер, - решительно сказал он и, не в силах сдержаться, ударил Ипполита Матвеевича в ухо. […]
- Правильно, - приговаривал Остап, - а теперь по шее и два раза. Так. Ничего не поделаешь. Иногда яйцам приходится учить зарвавшуюся курицу...

И. Ильф, Е. Петров, "Двенадцать стульев"

Nicky was strolling about outside the little pink house. Seeing Ostap, who was walking in front, he greeted him politely and then went up to Vorobyaninov. Ippolit Matveyevich greeted him cordially. Nicky, however, was not going to waste time.
"Good evening," he said and, unable to control himself, boxed Ippolit Matveyevich's ears. […]
"That's right," said Ostap, "and now on the neck. Twice. That's it. Can't be helped. Sometimes the eggs have to teach a lesson to a chicken who gets out of hand.

I. Ilf, Ye. Petrov, The Twelve Chairs
Translated by J. Richardson


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_____________________________________________________________________ Website owner: Irina Lychak, self-employed freelance linguist, Russian translator, Ukrainian translator, Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine

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