Japanese Proverbs: January 2010
It’s been a quiet couple months here at Nihonshock, but this is the first blog post in what’s going to be a busy month!
As usual, here I’ve collected all the proverbs I tweeted in January (looks like I missed one on the 2nd…), including their translations and meanings and other notes, where appropriate. Enjoy, and please follow me if you like them! I’ve been doing this for almost half a year and don’t know how many more months I’ll be able to keep finding new proverbs to tweet, but I still really don’t feel like I’m running out.
Reading: いちねんのけいはがんたんにあり (ichinen no kei wa gantan ni ari)
Translation: “The sum of the year is on New Year’s day.”
Meaning: Preparation and planning are the foundations of success.
Reading: りょうやくはくちににがし (ryouyaku wa kuchi ni nigashi)
Translation: “Good medicine tastes bitter.”
Meaning: The advice we least want to hear is the advice we need the most.
Reading: ひとはみかけによらぬもの (hito wa mikake ni yoranu mono)
Meaning: You can’t judge people by their appearance.
Reading: なきっつらにはち(nakittsura ni hachi)
Translation: “A bee-sting on a crying face.”
Meaning: One bad thing on top of another / Compounded misfortunes.
Reading: みいらとりがみいらになる (miira tori ga miira ni naru)
Translation: “The mummy-taker becomes the mummy.”
Meaning: Setting out to try and persuade someone of something, but ending up getting turned to their side.
Reading: うえにもうえがある (ue ni mo ue ga aru)
Translation: “Even the top has a top.”
Meaning: No matter how good you are, there’s always someone better.
Reading: にかいからめぐすり (nikai kara megusuri)
Translation: “Trying to apply eye drops from the 2nd floor.”
Meaning: Too roundabout or far-fetched of a method to be effective.
Note: We can also say 天井 (てんじょう = ceiling) instead of 二階 for this proverb.
Reading: にそくのわらじ (nisoku no waraji)
Translation: “Two pairs of straw sandals”
Meaning: Someone with two different jobs (ie. Actor/Governor)
Reading: かんにんぶくろのおがきれる (kanninbukuro no o ga kireru)
Translation: “To snap the string on your tolerance bag.”
Meaning: To lose your temper.
Translation: “Before breakfast”
Meaning: Something very easy which can be finished quickly / a piece of cake.
Reading: なさけはひとのためならず (nasake wa hito no tame narazu)
Translation: “Kindness is not (entirely) for others”
Meaning: If you are kind to others, eventually you will be repaid.
Note: 大辞林 (the major J-J Dictionary) says some younger generations mistakenly think this proverb means “being kind is bad for you,” they think this because they think the 人 in the proverb refers to the person doing the kind act, but it actually refers to the recipients of the act.
Reading: すべてのみちはローマにつうず (subete no michi wa ro-ma ni tsuuzu)
Translation: All roads lead to Rome.
Reading: ぜんはいそげ (zen wa isoge)
Translation: “It is good to hurry.”
Meaning: Strike while the iron is hot.
Reading: はやかれおそかれ (hayakare osokare)
Translation: Sooner or later.
Reading: いそがばまわれ (isogaba maware)
Translation: “If you rush, you’ll go around in circles.”
Meaning: Haste makes waste.
Reading: ふくすいぼんにかえらず (fukusui bon ni kaerazu)
Translation: “Spilled water will not return to the bowl.”
Meaning: Once something has been done, it cannot be undone.
Reading: あとのまつり (ato no matsuri)
Translation: “The day after the festival.”
Meaning: You’re too late / you missed your chance.
Reading: でんかのほうとう (denka no houtou)
Translation: “The family’s treasured sword.”
Meaning: An effective tactic or tool, but one which should only be used at critical moments.
Reading: おににかなぼう (oni ni kanabou)
Translation: “Giving a club to a demon.”
Meaning: Increasing the power of someone who is already powerful.
Reading: けがのこうみょう (kega no koumyou)
Translation: “An accidental glory.”
Meaning: A mistake or careless action leading to a fortunate result.
Reading: かっぱのかわながれ (kappa no kawanagare)
Translation: “A kappa swept away by the river”
Meaning: Even experts fail sometimes.
Explanation: Kappa are Japanese monsters that live in rivers, so they’re supposed to be very agile in water.
Reading: ぜんもんのとら、こうもんのおおかみ (zenmon no tora, koumon no ookami)
Translation: Fleeing a tiger at the front gate only to find a wolf at the back
Meaning: Out of the frying pan, into the fire. From one bad situation to another.
Reading: めのうえのたんこぶ (me no ue no tankobu)
Translation: “A lump above your eye”
Meaning: Someone who gets in your way and/or on your nerves.
Reading: ぺんはけんよりもつよし (pen wa ken yori tsuyoshi)
Translation: The pen is mightier than the sword.
Reading: ころんぶすのたまご (koronbusu no tamago)
Translation: Columbus’ Egg
Meaning: A clever idea. Something simple to copy, but difficult to think of.
Explanation: This proverb is a reference to an anecdote about Columbus. Apparently, at a banquet, he challenged some people to stand an egg on end; none of them could do it. Columbus then hit the bottom of the (hard boiled?) egg firmly against the table, breaking the shell slightly. Of course, this way the egg did not fall over as before.
Reading: めにはめを、はにははを (me ni wa me o, ha ni wa ha o)
Translation: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Reading: いっすんさきはやみ (issun saki wa yami)
Translation: “One inch forward is darkness”
Meaning: The future is unpredictable.
Reading: あたらずともとおからず (atarazu to mo tookarazu)
Translation: “Not a hit, but not far off.”
Meaning: A nearly correct guess.
Reading: ながれにさおさす (nagare ni sao sasu)
Translation: “to thrust a pole in the flow”
Meaning: to make swift progress in good circumstances.
Note: Some Japanese mistakenly think this proverb means “to resist the change of times/to go against the grain”. The “pole” mentioned in the proverb is actually supposed to be a pole used for navigating a boat, or a tool to utilize the flow to your advantage.
Reading: たていたにみず (tateita ni mizu)
Translation: “Like water running down a standing board”
Meaning: Speaking fluidly and without hesitation (and without end) / going off on a spiel about something.
Note: @tomoakiyama had this to say: “I have translated it as verbal diarrhea.”