It goes without saying that Italians are creative and very expressive, and over the years I have delighted in the various ‘sayings’ and proverbs that are still commonly used in the language. Also in translating some common English proverbs found the references used quite different. After all “a proverb is a short pithy saying that expresses a traditionally held truth or piece of advice, based on common sense or experience” (www.phrases.org.uk)*
‘Una sposa bagnata, una sposa fortunata’ – ‘A wet bride is a lucky bride’, is the first thing that springs to mind when any friend is to marry and the weather forecast predicts rain. It sounds like a comforting thought for what could be a disaster on the day, although it does relate to the old farming culture – rain guarantees abundance, and hence the wish for fertility to the wet bride.
Italians always have a comforting word for other small disasters – like when hit by a pigeon plop they say that’s lucky too. Which is reassuring when you are trying to clean the mess off a jacket or out of your hair! Since the tales of Boccacio’s ‘The Decameron’ Italians have known how to get out of tricky situations with creative flair and more often than not a cheeky smile.
And then there are the constant references to Italian staples – Bread and Wine – You can’t have your cake and eat it too in Italian is translated to You can’t have the wine barrel full and your wife drunk! “Non si può avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca“!
“Nella botte piccola c’è il vino buono” – Translated reads as good wine comes from the small barrel – Good things come in small packages.
“Il vino rende lieti e fa svelare i segreti” – Wine makes you happy and likely to reveal hidden secrets. Or as a response to a revelation some ask if it came out over a glass of wine – “vino veritas” a Latin phrase meaning ‘in wine, is truth’
The classic English proverb ‘call a spade a spade’ in Italian translates as call bread as bread and wine as wine “di pane al pane e vino a vino“. Or another common one is “chi ha i denti non ha pane e chi ha pane non ha i denti“, those who have teeth don’t have bread and vice versa, meaning those who have the means but not the know-how.
Other translations clearly reflect the farming background when times were tough as nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language and the element of language that best encapsulates a society’s values and beliefs is its proverbs.* A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush translates as It’s better to have an egg today than a chicken tomorrow ” Meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani” You can’t get blood out of a stone is interpreted in Italian as You can’t get blood out of a turnip, “Non si può cavar sangue da una rapa”
Another rather curious saying that I often use in response to Italians noting my Florentine accent in Italian – “chi va con lo zoppo impara a zoppicare” If you frequent one who limps you will learn to limp too, meaning you will pick up their good/bad habits. And I must say I am proud of my Anglo Florentine accent!
However while the expression probably relates to ancient crippling diseases no longer present, it brought to mind the old tradition during the times of the ‘mezzadro‘ or sharecropping farm system, of swaddling babies from the armpits down to straighten their legs and keep them safe in the house while the women went out to work the fields. Unfortunately a practice that left many Tuscans hobbling, as the practice used in the first 18months of their existence frequently distorted their hips.
On the other side Italians would never say ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’, they are far too parochial, so instead say “paese che vai, usanza che trovi” meaning in ‘whichever place you go, do as the locals do’.
And are still traditional enough to follow the common expression of “A Natale con i tuoi, a Pasqua con chi vuoi” – Christmas stay with family, at Easter go with whoever you like. Traditions die hard in Italy so if you have ever been invited to a traditional Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas lunch be prepared…….it will fill you up for days!.
Understandably many proverbs translate in the same way and have the same links to a pre industrialized time. And some appear to reflect more the current situation than to the past “chi ruba poco va in galera, chi ruba tanto fa carriera” Who steals a little goes to jail, who steals a lot makes a career!
Language is such a beautiful thing, solid in its persistence yet fluid in its adaption to change and a constant joy to bilinguals who flirt, flaunt, joke and stumble between the two…..eliciting great laughs along the way.