Translating Proverbs

Translating Proverbs

A proverb is a short saying stating a general truth or a piece of advice. In translating proverbs, it is necessary to avoid literal translation. Understanding in the level of language concept and culture is greatly needed. Every language has its own concept and culture. For example, “it’s no use crying over spilled milk”. Drinking milk has become most English people’s habit and part of their culture.

To find out the equivalent in the target language, first, a translator should understand the meaning of this proverb. This proverb means something has already happened and is irreversible. There is no use to regret or to cry over the past as regret always comes last. In Indonesian, the translator can simply translate this proverb into a sentence which means “something has already happened and is irreversible” or “there is no use to regret the past”. The translator, however, can further examine whether there is any comparable proverb in the target language. As there is also the comparable one in Indonesian that is “nasi telah menjadi bubur”, the translator can use this as the equivalent translation. You can see the difference in terms of concepts and culture between English and Indonesian. Indonesian people eat rice as their staple food; therefore Indonesians say “nasi telah menjadi bubur” instead of “susu sudah basi”.

The followings are the examples of proverb translation from Indonesian to English.

“Sambil menyelam minum air.”

This proverb is literally translated into “drinking water while diving”. Therefore, it would sound weird to translate it literally. This proverb means doing two things at one go or at the same time. Another Indonesian proverb that has the same meaning is “sekali merengkuh dayung, dua tiga pulau terlampaui.” This one is literary translated into “by one stroke at the paddle, two and three islands have been passed”. The meaning of this proverb is doing multiple tasks at one go. In English, the idiomatic translation would be, “kill two birds with one stone”. Wow! Actually this sounds rather violent to me.

“Air cucuran jatuhnya ke pelimbahan juga.”

Literally, it means water dripping from the roof will eventually go to the reservoir. The meaning is same with the English proverbs “like father like son” or “an apple never falls far from the tree”.

After reading the examples, we can see how significant the role of understanding language concept and culture in translation. In conclusion, in translating proverbs, a translator should avoid literal translation unless it is required; let’s say for comparing the literal and dynamic equivalents (for academic research). It is good to find out the comparable proverb in the target language (if any) to present a more natural translation as naturalness in translation is important.

Contributor: Luh Windiari

Written in 2012 and re-edited in June 2013

This article is also posted on and another blog of TranslationPapers Bali

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