Learning Russian Proverbs (Guest Post)

I’m really honored to have Natalie from Fluent Historian contribute a guest post. I love her writing, and she always delivers useful information. Also, there’s a lack of Russian language information on Language Surfer, so I’m extremely glad to give it some much needed attention. Take it away, Natalie…

When Ron asked me to contribute a post about Russian proverbs, I jumped at the chance. I love learning Russian, and I love sharing my knowledge with others, and what better topic to talk about than one that is difficult for non-native speakers to get. I’m sure it’s true in every language: regular, run-of-the-mill vocabulary words are a lot easier to deal with than proverbs and sayings, which tend to be highly idiomatic.

Nevertheless, they play an important part in the language and are definitely worth learning. If you don’t learn these, you’ll like Russian как собака палку [kak sobaka palku; literally “like a dog likes a stick,” i.e. like a cat loves water]. Which is to say: you won’t like it at all because you won’t understand when people use proverbs!

Red Square - St. Basil's Cathedral  By Natalie (Fluent Historian)

Red Square – St. Basil’s Cathedral
By Natalie (Fluent Historian)

Without further ado, here’s a list of some of my favorite proverbs. Of course, this list is not exhaustive by any means, as there are way too many proverbs out there to include!

Волков бояться — в лес не ходить. [Volkov boyatsa — v les ne khodit.]

This literally means, “If you’re afraid of wolves, don’t go into the forest.” But in English, we’d probably say: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” I think it’s interesting that this proverb developed in the Russian language. If you’ve ever been to Russia, you’ll know that there are a ton of forests. The country is so large that most of it is wilderness, anyway. Even in the relatively more populated European part, there are stretches of forest that seem to go on forever. And no, I haven’t been in those forests—but I’m willing to bet they’re full of wolves!

Тише едешь, дальше будешь. [Tishe yedesh, dalshe budesh.]

This literally means: “The more quietly you go, the further you’ll get.” In English, we’d say: “Slow and steady wins the race.” I think this is an important proverb to include because it’s relatively common. Plus, it’s good to remember if you’re learning a language. Back when I first started studying Russian, my professor used to say this when we were frustrated with learning yet another irregular verb conjugation or had messed up yet another noun declension. He meant that someday, if we persevered, we would get it—and he was right. People gradually dropped out of the Russian program, but those who stayed attained a high level in the language.

Любовь зла, полюбишь и козла. [Lyubov zla, polyubish i kozla.]

This literally means, “Love’s evil, you’ll love even a goat.” It’s the Russian equivalent of, “Love is blind.” I like this one because of a (potentially unintentional) play on words: the Russian word for goat, козёл [kozyol], is also a rude term to refer to a man—obviously one you don’t like very much! I’d like to think that this saying came about from some women complaining about the men they once dated who turned out to be idiots. :)

На вкус и цвет товарищей нет. [Na vkus i tsvet tovarischey net.]

I had to include this saying because it just sounds so odd to someone learning Russian (or at least it did for me). It literally means, “There are no friends in tastes and colors.” To me, that sounds so strange. In English, we’d say, “There’s no accounting for taste.” Next time you go to a friend’s house and see the hideous color they painted their living room, or the rather odd clothes they’re wearing, just think of this proverb silently. Alternately, if they’re not a Russian speaker, you could say it out loud in Russian, as they won’t understand anyway! :)

Жизнь прожить — не поле перейти. [Zhizn prozhit — ne pole pereyti.]

I’ve saved my favorite proverb for (almost) last. It literally means, “Living [your] life is not like crossing a field.” In English, we’d probably say, “Life is not a bed of roses.”

The origins of this proverb are very interesting. Boris Pasternak, the acclaimed author who wrote Doctor Zhivago, was also an accomplished poet. One of the poems he published—at the end of Doctor Zhivago, actually—is called “Hamlet” and the last line of that poem is this proverb. You can read a halfway decent translation of the poem here.

Повторенье – мать ученья. [Povtorenye — mat uchenya.]

I’ve saved the most important proverb for last, which literally means, “Repetition is the mother of learning.” Or, as we would say in English: “Practice makes perfect.” You’re probably feeling overwhelmed now with the many Russian proverbs out there, just waiting to complicate your Russian studies. It’s important to remember that if you’re learning a language, you need time to absorb everything and let it soak in.

Need help with Russian? Don’t despair! I post about the Russian language on my blog sometimes and if you have any questions, I’d be willing to help out.

About the author: Natalie studied history and Russian language at university. Her Russian obsession has been going strong for almost seven years now and shows no signs of abating. She also plays violin, works on novels, and writes about her life on her blog, Fluent Historian.

  • http://allthetongues.hol.es/ Roman Shinkarenko

    ha a coincidence! I have just written a post on Swahili proverbs (http://allthetongues.hol.es/resource/swahili-proverbs-treasure-trove-wisdom/). Our minds think alike.
    Natalie, you should write about Не так страшен черт, как его малюют. This is a very colorful proverb.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Roman, I checked out your article. Very cool! You and Natalie should both definitely check each other’s sites out. Lot of shared interests.

    • http://lightonspanish.com/ Jorge Sivit

      Hey Roman, the link leads to a Not Found page. I think it’s because the closing bracket is included in the link text.

      And you have an interesting post there!

  • http://fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

    Yay! Thanks for inviting me to post, Ron. I had a really fun time writing this. And if you want to further remedy that lack of Russian info on this blog… well, you know who to talk to! 😉

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Definitely my pleasure. I love this article! Definitely would love some more someday. :)

  • http://lightonspanish.com/ Jorge Sivit

    Hi Natalie!

    This was a very interesting read. I learned some Russian expressions when I traveled to Russia a long time ago, but I’ve forgotten everything, so I’m glad I could learn something about Russian here. Thank you!

    No matter which language you go to, they all have proverbs and many of them are similar to the proverbs in other languages.

    My favorite one is [Povtorenye — mat uchenya.] I just listened to it on Google Translate and sounds nice too;-)

  • Phil

    Great post! I can’t wait for Duolingo to finish their Russian course. My college Russian has been out of practice for too long.

  • pablomaz

    Very nice article, Natalie!
    :- )
    I just started studying Russian a month ago, and I
    found it very curious. I’ll follow you’re blog too.

  • Anna Kalina