the short and long of it

Before I went to Korea for the first time, I bought, among other things, the then-current edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Korea. In the Culture section, it says:

Traditional saying provide an uncensored insight into a nation’s psyche.

An unblemished character is a Korean’s most treasured possession. To avoid any suspicion of being a thief, ‘Do not tie your shoelaces in a melon patch or touch your hat under a pear tree.’

Yesterday evening I was browsing through TV Tropes and found its page for Translation: “Yes”, which it explains:

While we commonly expect short phrases in one language to be equally short in another, sometimes short phrases are translated into surprisingly long ones: however, many shows parody this completely by having a single word become a long phrase in English, or a ridiculously long phrase to a single English word, often the word ‘Yes’.

I noticed this many years ago when proofreading transcripts of court proceedings against the audio recording. There would be exchanges like:

Barrister (in English): Did you see the accused do something on the night in question?
Interpreter (in other language): [Approximately that long sentence.]
Witness (in other language): [Very long sentence.]
Interpreter (in English): Yes. 

The judge and barristers never seemed to notice or question this.

One of the examples in TV Tropes’s Real Life section is:

Some writing systems, perhaps most notably, Chinese and related systems from neighbouring countries [but not Korean, which has an alphabet] can have this sort of effect since just a couple of written characters can translate into entire sentences.

Sìzìchéngyǔ (Chinese)/Yojijukugo(Japanese), or “four character phrases” are frequently something of a pseudo-example. Even while most are only four to eight syllables long, being idiomatic expressions, they usually can’t be meaningfully translated in less than a dozen words. As an example, 瓜田李下 translates to “Don’t kneel down to tie your shoe in a melon field; nor adjust your hat under a pear tree, to avoid people misunderstanding it as you trying to steal something.”

At least it says “pseudo-example”, because 瓜田李下 doesn’t translate to that; it translates to melon field plum under. Wiktionary explains that is originates from a longer proverb: 瓜田不納履,李下不整冠 (presumably traditional) / 瓜田不纳履,李下不整冠 (presumably “simplified” – note the fourth character) (guā tián lǐ xià), or “do not put on shoes in a melon field; do not adjust your hat under a plum tree”. Google Translate makes a complete mess of the whole sentence, and renders a character or two at a time as melon – field – do not – accept shoes; [] – under – do not – whole – crown. (My chances of learning Chinese in the near future are slim to non-existent.)

The first possibility is that the two proverbs rose independently in similar cultures. The second is that the Koreans borrowed it from the Chinese. (The third is that the Chinese borrowed it from the Koreans.) Koreans tend to disclaim Chinese or Japanese influence on their language and culture, but there was and is obviously an awful lot of it (like, all of Confucianism). Chinese plays the same sort of role in Korean that Greek and Latin play in English. How many “English” proverbs are actually from Latin, Greek or Old Testament Hebrew? Speaking of which, the four-syllable version of the Chinese proverb is roughly equivalent to saying “A fool and his money …” in English.

(PS I will say more about four-character idioms in my next post, whenever that might be.)


2 thoughts on “the short and long of it

  1. Pingback: The horse is good | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  2. Regarding “A fool and his money” implying the remainder of the proverb (if that was your point), Paul McCartney’s “Come and Get It” (as recorded by Badfinger in 1970) features the line “Will you walk away from a fool and his money?”


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