There’s Something Fishy about Russian

I do have a soft spot for Russian proverbs and sayings, there just seems to be one for every situation that has ever existed. My previous foray into the use of porridge to jazz up your language proved how much this basic foodstuff has made its way into everyday use, and I wondered: has this been the case with anything else? The answer is yes, and it’s fish. Here are 8 handy sayings to help you sound like a native:

Без труда не вытащишь и рыбку из пруда

Труд means labour or hard work, and вытащишь (imperfective form: Вытаскивать) comes from the verb тащить which means to drag, plus the prefix which indicates movement outwards. So, this expression directly translates as “without hard work you won’t drag the fish out of the pond.”

Fishermen are seen as exceptionally patient people, and if they do not sit everyday with their fishing rods, the fish are not going to come of their own accord. If you want to get or achieve something, it requires perseverance and effort, and you won’t get anywhere if you aren’t willing to put them into work (kind of like learning Russian).

The English equivalent would be: “no pain, no gain.”

Рыбак рыбака видит издалека

Рыбак is a fisherman, and the preposition из is prefixed to далеко (meaning far) to mean from afar, making the direct translation of this expression “the fisherman sees the fisherman from afar.” It is used to describe how people with the same interests or characteristics are instinctively drawn to each other and understand each other and can spot each other from outward appearance. It is often used to describe people who get on because of their shared negative traits or ambitions.

The English equivalent is: “birds of a feather flock together.”

На безрыбье и рак – рыба

‘Безрыбье’ means an absence or shortage of fish. The expression means that if you don’t have a fish, a рак (crayfish) counts as one. It encourages people to think that if they do not have and are unable to get something better, then they will have to make do with what they have already. It can also be used when someone wants something expensive, but without the means to buy it, has to content themselves with a cheaper option.

You won’t catch any crabs without a fishing rod

In all probability, this expression originated from ancient Russian fishermen, who found it difficult to catch fish. A popular version of the origins of the saying goes like this: crayfish at the bottom of the river scared away all the fish, and, ignorant of the fisherman’s methods, took his bait. The fisherman, tired of his continued lack of success, was stunned. Overjoyed with his catch, he penned the saying.

In English, you’d say: “it’s better than nothing.”

Нем, как рыба

Нем is the shortened version of the adjective Немой, meaning dumb or silent. It is used to describe a person who never says anything.

The English equivalent would be: “silent as the grave.”

Рыба ищет, где глубже, а человек, где лучше

Глубже is the comparative form of the adjective глубокий (deep), and лучше is the comparative form of хорошо (good), so this expression literally means that a fish looks for somewhere deeper, whereas a person looks for somewhere better. It is used to describe someone who wants to improve their life situation.

An English equivalent would be: “he makes his home where the living is best.”

Рыба гниёт с головы

This isn’t the prettiest of expressions. Гниёт is the third person conjugation of the verb гнить, which means to decompose or start to smell. The direct translation is thus: “fish begins to stink at the head.” It is quite a conversational saying used to describe the disintegration of a group, which has started at the top, with the leaders of said group. It is often used to criticize the government or top management. It originates from ancient Rome and Greece.

Хочется рыбку съесть, да не хочется в воду лезть

‘Лезть в’ is a verb and preposition combination meaning to climb into something, and съесть is the perfective form of the verb есть – to eat. This expression has a similar meaning to the first one in this article: if you want to eat a fish, you have to get into the water. If you want something, you should put the effort in to get it, it won’t come to you.

Ни рыба ни мясо

This expression supposedly came about in the West during the time of the Reformation when people would try and differentiate between Protestant reformers and Catholics – whether someone was eating modestly – meat, or for Lent – fish. It is used when something is not one thing or another, and is not recognizable or characteristic of any one thing. The English equivalent would be: “neither fish, nor fowl.”

So there we have it: I’ve given you the expressions, all that’s left to do is find situations to use them in!

This post was written by Claire, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz.

Posted by Claire Burchett

Hello! I'm Claire and I’ll be interning at Liden & Denz St. Petersburg until the end of August, exploring my love of travel, culture and food.

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