Proverbs and Phrases of Biblical Origin

 Volume 10, No. 2 
April 2006

Igor Maslennikov


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Proverbs and Phrases of Biblical Origin
by Igor Maslennikov

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Bible Translation


Proverbs and Phrases of Biblical Origin

by Igor Maslennikov

uring my work on the origin of German idioms I purposely left out many German idioms and proverbs which come from well-known sources such as ancient tales or the Holy Bible. As usual, such proverbs have similar meanings in all languages and don't show the singularity of the language.

However, proverbs and phrases of biblical origin are often used, knowingly or unknowingly, in modern speech (ex: face-to-face or daily bread), especially with the rising of interest in the Bible after the publication of books such as Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Sometimes we use or listen to phrases automatically without thinking about the fact that they originate from the Bible (ex: crown of thorns as a symbol of suffering or dove with an olive branch as a symbol of peace). Because of their frequent use, these proverbs and constant phrases are very important for translators and interpreters. After some research and careful reading of the Scriptures in English, German, and Russian, I figured out that the proverbs and phrases which come from the Bible are sometimes not identical in their translation in the different languages. This fact gave me the idea that sometimes it could be difficult for translators and interpreters to give the right wording of biblical quotations in the target language. I don't mean the word-for-word substitution of the Bible quotation from one language to the other, but rather following the popular use of proverbs of biblical origin, which have sometimes been modified over time.

I believe that the obligation of every translator is to find an equivalent of the phrase (provided the use of the phrase contextually agrees with its biblical meaning) that is normally used in the target language. That is why a simple word-for-word translation sometimes doesn't help and can be absolutely incomprehensible to the target audience. This is especially true for Russian proverbs, which come from the old Slavic translations of the Greek version of the Bible. Russian proverbs and often-used phrases from the Bible contain some old Slavic words, which are not understandable to modern Russian people, except in the context of the full proverb and may be absolutely unknown to non-Russian translators. For example, the Russian equivalent of the phrase like a lamb (in the biblical meaning of the context) is аки агнец, where both words are rarely used in modern Russian; they can be found together in contemporary Russian literature but only in this phrase and often have a humorous connotation. The English phrase "to keep smth. as the apple of his eye" (Deuteronomy 32.10.) will be translated in Russian as "беречь как зеницу ока" or literally "to keep as the pupil of his eye". The word "Greek" in the phrase "Here there cannot be Greek and Jew" (Colossians 3.11.) becomes in the Russian equivalent not in the modern word "грек" (Greek) but in the old Slavic "эллин" (Hellene), which is hardly used in the Russian language today. The same situation can be observed when comparing the English biblical proverbs and phrases with German ones. For example, such phrases as "in the fullness of one's heart"(Luke 6.45.) in English and "aus dem guten Schatz seines Herzens" in German or "Do not judge by appearances" (John 7.24.) and "Richtet nicht nach dem, was vor Augen ist" are not word-for-word translations.

In all these cases I emphasize only the difficulty in translating proverbs and constant phrases of biblical origin from English into the target language, without touching on the matter of translation of the Scriptures into different languages. This is a topic in itself, which has been discussed for the past two thousand years.

The glossary of biblical proverbs and constant phrases in English, German and Russian, which I have compiled, only aims to help English-speaking translators and interpreters find the equivalents of English biblical proverbs in German and Russian as quickly and easily as possible without turning to the Scriptures or special dictionaries. I am sure this glossary is especially relevant for interpreters, where previous versions have been incomplete. I give the source quotation from the Bible (King James Version) for information only. Translators are advised to remember that the equivalents of English proverbs and phrases in German and Russian often do not coincide with the equivalent quotations from the German and Russian versions of the Holy Bible but are only proverbs. I added in my glossary some biblical names with different spellings in English, German, and Russian (ex: Caesar (English)—Kaiser (German)—Кесарь (Russian). The proverbs are listed alphabetically by key words. I hope my glossary will effectively help translators in their daily work.

English-German-Russian phrases & proverbs of biblical origin