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.

1. 一年の計は元旦にあり

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.

2. 良薬は口に苦し

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.

3. 人は見かけによらぬもの

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.

4. 泣きっ面に蜂

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.

5. ミイラ取りがミイラになる

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.

6. 上には上がある

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.

7. 二階から目薬

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.

8. 二足のわらじ

Waraji - Japanese straw sandals

わらじ - Straw sandals

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)

9. 堪忍袋の緒が切れる

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.

10. 朝飯前

Reading: あさめしまえ(asameshimae)
Translation: “Before breakfast”
Meaning: Something very easy which can be finished quickly / a piece of cake.

11. 情けは人の為ならず

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.

12. 全ての道はローマに通ず

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.

13. 善は急げ

Reading: ぜんはいそげ (zen wa isoge)
Translation: “It is good to hurry.”
Meaning: Strike while the iron is hot.

14. 早かれ遅かれ

Reading: はやかれおそかれ (hayakare osokare)
Translation: Sooner or later.

15. 急がば回れ

Reading: いそがばまわれ (isogaba maware)
Translation: “If you rush, you’ll go around in circles.”
Meaning: Haste makes waste.

16. 覆水盆に返らず

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.

17: 後の祭り

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.

18. 伝家の宝刀

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.

19. 鬼に金棒

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.

20. 怪我の功名

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.

21. 河童の川流れ

Kappa - a kind of Japanese monster

河童 (kappa)

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.

22. 前門の虎、後門の狼

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.

23. 目の上のたんこぶ

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.

24. ペンは剣よりも強し

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.

25.  コロンブスの卵

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.

26. 目には目を,歯には歯を

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.

27. 一寸先は闇

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.

28. 当たらずとも遠からず

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.

29. 流れに棹さす

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.

30. 立て板に水

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.”

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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