The colourful world of Russian sayings
Safe to say that Russian is a “filthy” rich language, with an insanely wide range of different proverbs and sayings that fit every situation and can be used to convey your message in a very punctual way. What’s more learning them and their origin will give you a wider cultural understanding, that’s why I decided to share with you my favourite Russian sayings with their English equivalent (As you’ll discover throughout the article the correspondence isn’t always perfect since proverbs are very culture-bound). Enjoy.
Дарёному коню в зубы не смотрят (Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth)
This is the Russian version of a world-famous proverb, as you can see from its translation in parenthesis. It simply means that “It is better not to criticise nor to judge a gift, whether it is costly or not, as it is present and you should be grateful for it anyway”. This origins from the way cattle-dealers check how old and healthy an animal is. In fact, they usually check the animal’s teeth to understand if it can be a good bargain or not.
Цыплят по осени считают (Don’t count your chickens until they’ve hatched)
The meaning of this widely used Russian saying comes from a farming tradition, that is, counting new-born chicks in autumn because not each of them makes it to October. And, it can be used either to suggest someone not to judge before the person they’re judging has a chance to show every side of their character; to point out that we’re not certain about the results of something we’re doing; or, last but not least, it is used to advise people not to brag about a result they still have not achieved.
Семь бед, один ответ (You might be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb)
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, proverbs are so culture-bound that sometimes there’s no exact correspondence between two languages. And, this is pretty much the case, since the English proverb is more to be interpreted as “whatever it takes”, whereas the Russian one is used to describe those, who kind of “allow” themselves to repeatedly do whatever floats their boat, no matter how risky it is or what the punishment will be, just because they’re conscious that they’ll be punished just once for all their misdeeds.
Moving on, in my opinion, the most interesting thing here is what’s “behind the scenes”. In fact, it turned out that this saying is closely linked to religion and numerology, hence the choice of “семь – seven” which refers to sacraments, deadly sins, and the times the Styx surrounds Hades. Furthermore, this number has been used for centuries to figuratively mean “a lot”.
С милым рай и в шалаше (Love makes a cottage a castle)
This phrase is frequently used by young lovers who are so in love they are sure that their love will overcome every single obstacle. This widely-used proverb owes its fame to the naturalised Russian poet Ибрагимов (Ibragimov) who used it in his “Русская Песня” (“Russian song”) published in 1815.
Милые бранятся – только тешатся (The course of true love never did run smooth)
This is one of the most famous Russian sayings and suggests us that every quarrel between two people, who are really in love, are not to be taken seriously, since they’ll end up quickly in a complete reconciliation. Furthermore, it is used to say that, for the above mentioned reason, other people’s intervention in the argument turns out to be useless or even and, at best, makes the person, who eventually tried to smooth things over, look as a third wheel. This phrase owes its popularity to Чехов’s quote (Chekhov) in his last tale “Невеста” (“The fiancee”) published in 1903.