by Dan Mac Dougall
seeks to define the word proverb, offer examples for the usage of proverbs over
time, and to provide some of their typical characteristics in Spanish. In
addition, the benefits of learning these special sayings will be highlighted.
is a dictionary definition (1991:1087): “a proverb is . . . a saying popularly
known and repeated, usually expressing simply and concretely, though often
metaphorically, a truth based on common sense or practical human experience. A
stitch in time saves nine.”
It is worth
noting that Taylor (1996:14) states: . . . “the man who says ‘So help me
God’ uses a proverbial formula already current in Roman speech.” Foulet:
(1927:301-24). And the following proverb, from Sephardic folklore, offers a view
of the mores of fifteenth-century Spain (Alatorre:211): “’Café sin tutún,
hamam sin sapún’” (‘café sin cigarrillo es como baño sin jabón’: hamam
es el baño turco). . .… Sayings such as these provide contemporary readers an
authentic insider’s view of a culture. In
the age of the sound byte with instant media coverage of world events, finding
sources for sayings that might have taken centuries to develop can be an onerous
contemporary literature in the original language and in translation can be
assisted immeasurably by accessing sources that provide examples for usage.
While it may be true that the Chilean equivalent of the Spanish refrán
“Más vale pájaro en mano que buitre volando” is “Más vale pájaro en
mano que ciento volando”, as Orellana (1998:248) states, an English equivalent
of “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” hardly does justice to the
original. That being said, each of
these sayings provides a mental picture that is readily comprehensible to
educated readers of both Spanish and English.
Furthermore, it highlights a characteristic of proverbs in any language,
namely that of linguistic synergy: the meaning provided by the saying ‘in
toto’ is greater than that provided by the words individually.
provide readers not only a written equivalent of proverbs or idioms in another
language, but also a visual cue in the form of drawings or sketches can greatly
assist in furthering understanding. The
idea that the more senses one employs in the learning process the greater are
the possibilities of retention of information is a truism. In an age of instant
information interactive media which engage learners are more likely to be of
more lasting value than those which do not. In order to make maximum use of a
computer one must be able to draw upon a variety of skills, not just visual. It should come as no surprise that an advertising consulting
firm recently stated that advertising banners that flow across computer monitors
on web pages are gaining a foothold in the advertising market.
The key to their effectiveness could very well be their interactive
The learning of
proverbs can be a key element in the language acquisition process.
‘Refranes’, ‘frases hechas’, idioms, and proverbs can provide a snapshot
of other cultures that allows for a more thorough understanding of both language
and culture. Without grasping the
meaning of these types of sayings we are limited to a unilateral understanding,
providing fertile ground toward the development of cultural and linguistic
ethnocentrism. We can become
enriched as individuals and societies when we understand the viewpoints of
others. This dovetails the management principle of the doublewin: both,
individuals or groups, are able to benefit when each is vitally concerned with
equanimity not only for themselves, but also others. This forces us to broaden
our frame of reference, deepen our understanding, and improve our individual and
translating from one language to another, a literal, word- for-word rendering
pales in comparison to its natural counterpart.
Its sound is stilted to the ear of a native speaker.
For example, in Quintans (1999:1) the refrán: “La cara es el espejo
del alma,” when translated literally does not sound natural to speakers of
English. The English equivalent would be “The eyes are the window of the
soul.” Those who commit to a thorough study and usage of proverbs will further
their own understanding. Since no one collection is all-inclusive in its scope,
keeping updated regarding new source material is essential.
prevalent in many proverbs in Spanish is that of rhyming, an excellent mnemonic
device for students. The rhyme
scheme often used is that of assonance (1991:83):
“… rhyme in which the same vowel sounds are used with different
consonants in the stressed syllables of the rhyming words, as in penitent
and reticence. For example:
“En tiempos de guerra, cualquier hoyo es trinchera,” “A rey muerto, rey
puesto,” and “Lo que pienses en comprar, no lo has de alabar,” all
examples provided in Chen (1999: 1-2).
another characteristic of Spanish and Spanish- American proverbs, as evinced by
Arora’s (1998:1) analysis of 125 el que nace proverbs. For example:
“El que nace para AHORCADO, de arriba le cae la soga” (1998:3) A Cuban
equivalent of this attitude is found in Montes (7): “El que nace para burro
del cielo le cae el aparejo” and Chen’s (1999:10) examples impart a similar
view of life in these sayings: “El que nace para mulo del cielo le
cae el arnés/policía del cielo le cae el bolillo.
that is born to be hanged shall never be drowned. * You can’t
escape your destiny.”
is worth noting that within the U.S. language-specific standards have been
developed for grades K-16 for nine distinct foreign language groups.
This fact underscores the seriousness with which the intellectual
community is dealing with the study of foreign languages.
The study of proverbs, idioms, and ‘refranes’ fulfills at least three
of the U.S. Standards for Foreign Language Learning (1996:9), namely:
within the framework of Connections, “Standard 3.2: Students
acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints that are only
available through the foreign language and its cultures.”
Under the heading of Comparisons, “Standard 4.1: Students
demonstrate understanding of the nature of language through comparisons of the
language studied and their own,” and “Standard 4.2: Students
demonstrate understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the
culture studied and their own.” As stated in the Introduction to the Standards
(1996:11): “To study another language and culture gives one the
powerful key to successful communication: knowing how, when, and why to say
what to whom.”
The wisdom inherent in proverbs has demonstrated its value over an extended period of time. The valuable insights gleaned from their study and application will help students to better understand their own language and culture when analyzed comparatively. Translators, interpreters, and linguists also will benefit from constantly updating their understanding and use of these gems of wisdom, since they can offer culturally-specific insights. Rhyming, synergy, and fatalism are some of the characteristics of proverbs in Spanish. The most beneficial source materials couple a listing of sayings with explanations of their usage, in addition to drawings or sketches. The latter can further elucidate the meaning, thereby increasing the likelihood of comprehension.
Antonio. (1998) Los 1,001 años de la lengua española. Sexta reimpresión.
México, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Shirley L. (1998). The EL QUE NACE PROVERBS: A Supplement, ISSN 1323-4633.
Vol. 4-No. 2: 1-13.
Berta Alicia. 1999. Dictionary of Proverbs and Sayings/ Diccionario de
Proverbios y Refranes, Complementary Sample / Muestra Gratis:
L. (1927) “’Si m’ait Deus’ et l’ordre des mots.” Romania,
LIII: 301-24 in Archer Taylor, De Proverbio, Vol. 2-No. 2: 1-17,
University of Tasmania, Australia.
Almudena. no publishing date given. Sabiduría Popular Cubana, “Adivinanzas, trabalenguas,
dicharachos, refranes cubanos,” Madrid. Agualarga
Standards in Foreign Languages Education Project. (1996) Standards for
foreign language learning: Preparation for the 21st century. Lawrence, KS: Allen Press: 9&11.
Marina. (1998). La Traducción del inglés al castellano. “Guía práctica
para el traductor.” 5a reimpresión. Santiago de Chile: Editorial
Víctor. 1999. Lengua Muerta. Introducción. Website:
House Webster’s college dictionary. (1991). New York, N.Y.: Random House, Inc.
Archer. (1996). “Problems in the study of proverbs.” De
Proverbio, An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies,
Vol. 2, No. 2: 1-17. ISSN 1323-4633/ http://info.utas.edu.au/docs/flonta
writer is a freelance translator and interpreter of Spanish into English and
viceversa. He has written several songs for children in Spanish and teaches
Spanish to adults.
Translation & Interpretation