Culture & Religion

“Escaped from a Crocodile’s Mouth, Entered a Tiger’s Mouth”: The Wonderful World of Malay Proverbs

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It’s always enjoyable to celebrate the difference between cultures, and language barriers are one of the obvious ways to achieve this. One of my favorite ‘cultural pastimes’ is to compare proverbs and to see the literal translation of another language’s common phrases – often, the two idioms have comically different ways of portraying the same sentiment.

For example, whereas a straight-talking American would ‘call a spade a spade’, a Frenchman would ‘call a cat a cat’ (or ‘appeler un chat un chat‘), and whereas an overly diplomatic Englishman would ‘beat around the bush’, a German would quite literally ‘talk around the hot porridge’ (um den heißen Brei herumreden’). This practice makes for some interesting ideas!

It seemed only right to do it with Bahasa Malaysia (BM), too, and as expected I came across some rather enjoyable scenarios:

1. Still waters run deep

Meaning: Just because someone is quiet, they may actually be very intelligent
BM equivalent: Air yang tenang jangan disangka tiada buaya
Literal translation: Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm

2. It takes two to tango

Meaning: Some activities – including taking blame – need two people who are willing before it can happen
BM equivalent: Bertepuk sebelah tangan, tidak akan berbunyi
Literal translation: Clapping only with the right hand will not produce a noise

3. Prevention is better than cure

Meaning: It’s easier to stop something bad from happening than fix it after the damage is done
BM equivalent: Sediakan payung sebelum hujan
Literal translation: Prepare the umbrella before it rains

 4. Curses, like chickens, come home to roost

Meaning: Offensive behaviour will somehow come back to you in the future
BM equivalent: Sepandai-pandai tupai melompat, akhirnya jatuh ke tanah juga
Literal translation: No matter how high the squirrel jumps, it will eventually fall to the ground

5. You’re like a cat on a hot tin roof

Meaning: You look extremely nervous or excited
BM equivalent: Seperti kera kena belacan
Literal translation: Like a monkey who ate a chili


 6. It goes in one ear and out the other

Meaning: This person doesn’t take in anything (s)he hears
BM equivalent: Bagai mencurah air ke daun keladi
Literal translation: It’s like pouring water onto a yam leaf

7. Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Meaning:  Getting out of a bad situation for a worse problem
BM equivalent: Terlepas dari mulut buaya, masuk ke mulut harimau
Literal translation: Escaped from a crocodile’s mouth, entered a tiger’s mouth

8. Like father, like son

Meaning: Sons tend to do what their fathers did before them.
BM equivalent: Bagaimana acuan begitulah kuihnya
Literal translation: How the mould is, that’s how the cake turns out

9. Kill two birds with one stone

Meaning: Achieve two goals at once
BM equivalent: Sambil menyelam minum air
Literal translation: While diving, drink water

10. Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile

Meaning: Make a small allowance for someone and they’ll take advantage of you
BM equivalent: Diberi betis hendak paha
Literal translation: Calf is given, but then thigh is requested

11. When in Rome, do as the Romans do

Meaning: When visiting a foreign land, respect the culture of the residents
BM equivalent: Masuk kandang kambing mengembik, masuk kandang kerbau menguak
Literal translation: Enter a goat’s shed, you bleat; enter a buffalo’s shed, you moo


 12. It’s no use crying over spilt milk

Meaning: It’s not wise to feeling sorry about something that has already happened
BM equivalent: Nasi sudah menjadi bubur
Literal translation: The rice has already become porridge

13. A stitch in time saves nine

Meaning: Doing an important task now will make your life easier in the long run
BM equivalent: Melentur buluh biarlah daripada rebungnya
Literal translation: To bend bamboo, start when it is a shoot

 14. One bad apple spoils the barrel

Meaning: One negative influence in a group could ruin the other members’ reputation or attitude
BM equivalent: Sebab nila setitik, rosak susu sebelanga
Literal translation: One drop of dye contaminates a whole pot of milk

 15. There’s no smoke without fire

Meaning: A rumour exists for a reason
BM equivalent: Ada gula ada semut
Literal translation: Where there is sugar, there will be ants

Do know any good ones?

Have you hear of any funny-sounding proverbs? Let us know about them in the comments below – or, better yet, try to draw the meaning yourself and post it here for everyone to see!

The drawings in this article come from the comic mind of British illustrator Jim Field. If you would like to get in touch, send him a tweet: @my_name_is_jim

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