Proverbs via W.S. Merwin

Strictly speaking, proverbs are not aphorisms. The only difference, really, is that aphorisms have an identifiable author, while proverbs have been around so long that the identity of the author has been lost. Still, proverbs and aphorisms pack so much meaning into so few words by the same mechanism: metaphor. Take the great Chinese proverb:

It’s hard to dismount from a tiger.

How do we know what that saying means? I, for one, have never mounted a tiger, nor have I dismounted one, and I am not inclined to try either operation. Yet I know exactly what this saying means, even though I know nothing about tigers and the saying itself has nothing whatsoever to do with mounting or dismounting actual tigers. I know what this saying means because I know what the metaphor means—getting out of a wild, uncontrollable situation can often be more dangerous than the situation itself.

It took me 16 words to paraphrase the meaning of this proverb, but the proverb itself is only seven words long. Proverbs and aphorisms can be so short, and so meaningful, because the metaphor does all the work. It’s like those foam dinosaurs that come in little capsules; drop one into your child’s (or your own) bath and it unfolds into a good-sized stegosaurus. Drop a metaphor into your stream of consciousness and it expands into manifold meanings. Good, clean fun for the whole family.

Here are some more metaphorical proverbs, taken from W.S. Merwin’s East Window: The Asian Translations.

Burnt tortoise: the pain stays inside.

Rat runs off with a squash holding it by the little end.

The fish line goes out and out but one end is in my hand.

Sleeves touch because they were going to since the world began.

One dog barks at nothing, ten thousands others pass it on.

Chase two hares, both get away.