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A Tough Nut to Crack2 September 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
It’s a well-known fact that it’s often pouring with rain in certain parts of the UK. Whereas it’s raining cats and dogs in England, it’s raining pipe stems in the Netherlands. I would like to suggest that in Scotland it’s raining ‘cows and horses’.
I’ve been informed that it rains buckets in most Scandinavian countries. In France – obviously – it rains frogs. Well, at times it rains like ‘pissing cows’. In Cantonese, it’s even dog poo that’s falling. I hope the Chinese summer hasn’t been too bad.
In Greece it’s raining chair legs and in Denmark, when there is a stiff south-westerly gale, it’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices. Not something to look forward to, being hit by a shoemaker’s apprentice.
It can get crazier. In Afrikaans (South Africa) it’s raining ‘ou vrouens met knopkieries’ (old women with knobkerries (clubs)). It’s amazing what falls from the sky.
Proverbs no longer feature much in the Dutch curriculum. If I mention to children that ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play’, it’s quite likely that they’ll take it at face value, especially if they have a cat and also mice at home.
One of the best-known Dutch proverbs is: ‘That’s a truth like a cow’, or ‘it’s a truism’. A rather self-evident truth, and most proverbs have become hackneyed.
When I grew up we used a lot of proverbs, even expressions unique to us. When I was born my grandfather had been dead for years, but still his sayings were passed on. This one, for example: ‘You are always run down by a dung cart, never by a luxury carriage’.
These things lodged themselves in my brain. Proverbs like ‘Jealousy is the worst disease’. Or: ‘To lumber someone with the Kranenburg cross’. This means something like: I’m through with you.
I recently read somewhere that this expression related to going on pilgrimage to Kevelaer in Germany. When pilgrims crossed the German border at Kranenburg, customs checked their suitcases. Each checked suitcase was marked with a white cross.
The Dutch literary critic Kees Fens once observed in a documentary that you could say what you want about the compulsory churchgoing of his youth, but it meant that everyone experienced architecture, literature, art and music from a young age. Whatever your background, irrespective of your parents, this was brought home to you.
It’s the same with proverbs. When I was growing up, proverbs were part and parcel of the curriculum. You were given the first few words of a proverb and you had to finish it. In Dutch: ‘He does like...’ The answer was ‘his dad’. (He takes after his father.) I answered: ‘his bed’.
Proverbs use comparisons and metaphors. If, in Dutch or in English, you mention ‘green-eyed jealousy’ or ‘the wish is father to the thought’, you’re quoting Shakespeare.
If the entire population is exposed to proverbs from a young age, it’s quite likely to nurture poets. It provides a different way of observing the world: metaphorically.
The Dutch poet Jules Deelder wrote his first poem aged eleven, entitled: Listen, They are Throwing an Atom Bomb. A remarkable number of children show poetic promise. Most people lose it as they grow up.
Older generations knew their proverbs, younger ones are ignorant, and my own generation makes a hash of them.
Crown Prince Willem-Alexander is just a few years younger than I. In 2009 he used a popular Spanish proverb during a visit to Mexico. Unfortunately, Mexican seemed to differ just a bit from Spanish. He tried to say: ‘A sleeping shrimp is dragged away by the tide.’ Instead, causing widespread amusement, he told them a sleeping shrimp is fucked.
I’m now going to phone the publisher’s translation department to ask if this column is translatable. It’s a tough nut to crack, yet I don’t expect a single shrimp to be fucked.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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