When learning a foreign language, we need to understand that we cannot always express what we want to say as a word-for-word translation of our mother tongue. It is perhaps surprising, then, when looking at French and English proverbs, to find that many of them are in fact direct translations of each other. At the same time, there are a few that have the same implied meaning but are expressed in a totally different way in each language. For example, whereas in English we must not count our chickens, the French must not sell their bear skin …..
Here is a glossary of common French proverbs with their translations:
L’argent est la racine de tous les maux. – Money is the root of all evil.
Nécessité est mère d’invention. – Necessity is the mother of invention.
Battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud. – Strike while the iron’s hot, or make hay while the sun shines.
Rira bien qui rira le dernier. – He who laughs last laughs longest. (Note that there are no subject pronouns in the French proverb.)
Une minute d’hésitation peut coûter cher. – He who hesitates is lost.
L’argent attire l’argent. – Money makes money.
C’est dans le besoin que l’on connaît ses vrais amis. – A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Il ne faut pas se fier aux apparences. – You can’t judge a book by its cover. (The French proverb is more literal, translating as “You mustn’t trust appearances.)
Nécessité fait loi. – Beggars can’t be choosers.
Rira vendredi dimanche pleurera. – Literally, ‘He who laughs on Friday will cry on Sunday.’
L’argent est le roi. – Money talks. Literally, ‘Money is king.’
Chaque chose en son temps. – Don’t cross your bridges before you come to them. The French proverb is much plainer, meaning ‘Each thing in its (own) time.’
Un petit service en vaut un autre. – You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours (literally, one good turn deserves, or is worth, another).
Un point à temps en vaut cent. – A stitch in time saves nine. The French proverb translates literally as ‘A stitch in time is worth a hundred.’
Chat échaudé craint l’eau froide. – Once bitten, twice shy. The French proverb has an interesting translation: ‘A scalded cat is afraid of cold water.’
Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué. – Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Again, an interesting French version, meaning ‘You mustn’t sell the bear’s skin before you have killed it.’
Un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras. – A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The two proverbs are very similar, but the French version does not actually refer to birds.
Qui se ressemble s’assemble. – Birds of a feather flock together. Again, no direct reference to birds in the French proverb, which translates as ‘Those who are alike get together.’
Tomber de mal en pis. – To go from bad to worse, or to jump out of the frying pan into the fire.
Les petits ruisseaux font les grandes rivières. – Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves; great oaks from little acorns grow. The French proverb literally means ‘Little streams make big rivers.’
Au point ou on en est, autant faire les choses jusqu’au bout. – In for a penny, in for a pound. The French version means considering where we are (the situation we are in), we might as well stick it out until the end.
Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait. – If youth but knew, if old age but could.
Un mal n’arrive jamais seul. – It never rains but it pours. The French proverb literally means ‘One bad thing never comes alone.’
Le mal des uns fait le bonheur des autres. – Literally, what is bad for some people brings happiness to others. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
Chacun à son metier, les vaches seront bien gardées. – Each man to his own trade (the cows will be well looked after).
Les bons comptes font les bons amis. – Bad debts make bad friends. This is the opposite in French, which literally means ‘Good accounts make good friends.’
Qui vole un oeuf vole un boeuf (literally, he who steals an egg steals cattle) / Qui a bu boira (literally, he who has drunk will drink again) – Once a thief, always a thief.
Tout ce qui brille n’est pas or. – All that glitters is not gold: this is the literal translation.
Toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire. – Some things are better left unsaid; the literal translation of the French is ‘Every truth is not good to say.’
La vérité sort de la bouche des enfants. – Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings comes forth truth/wisdom.
Many thanks to Michel Picavet, who added these proverbs to the collection:
Pierre qui roule n’amasse pas mousse. – A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Tourner autour du pot. – To beat about the bush.
Tout est bien qui finit bien. – All’s well that ends well.
On ne peut avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre. – You can’t have your cake and eat it too (literally, you can’t have the butter and the money for the butter.)
With thanks to Elizabeth Allen