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Russian Proverbs: The Key to Sounding Like a Native

If you are determined to talk like a native in Russian, it is not enough to merely speak fluently. To sound authentic, you need to know some sayings. They make speech emotional and your understanding of the language and the culture more profound. You can find out about a nation, its values, wisdom and attitude to fundamental things by learning its proverbs.  So let’s explore the use of common Russian proverbs!

Russian Proverbs About Work

Although Russians do not have a reputation of being a very hard-working nation, there are quite a lot of proverbs related to work and  diligence, such as:

Под лежачий камень вода не течет [pəd‿lʲɪʐˈat͡ɕɪj kˈamʲɪnʲ vɐdˈa nʲˈe tʲɪt͡ɕˈɵt]
Literal translation: No water flows under a lying stone.
Explanation: Nothing will happen in your life unless you try something.

Волков бояться – в лес не ходить [vɐ’lkof bɐjˈæt͡sə v‿lʲˈes nʲˈe hɐdʲˈitʲ]
Literal translation: If you’re afraid of wolves, don’t go into the forest.
Equivalent English proverb: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Работа не волк – в лес не убежит. [rɐbˈotə nʲˈe vˈolk v‿ lʲˈes nʲˈe ʊbʲɪʐˈɨt.]
Literal translation:  Work is not a wolf, and it won’t run off into the forest.
Explanation: Although nowadays everybody uses this proverb rather jokingly to say that they are planning to procrastinate, initially this saying had another meaning. A long time ago, people would hide at home when wolves came to a village, waiting for the animals to leave. Unlike the wolves, which would eventually go back into the forest, work had to be done no matter what. It does not disappear, and whether you want to or not, you have to do it.

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Голод не тётка. [‘Goltət nʲˈe ‘tiotka.]
Literal translation: Hunger is not your auntie.
Explanation: Used to say that in order to get food it’s okay to do something unpleasant or behave in an unusual way compared to how you would behave under normal circumstances.
This proverb sounds really strange to foreigners, and even some Russian speakers use this proverb without knowing its etymology. The full version of the proverb is ‘Голод не тётка, пирожка не поднесёт’, which means ‘Hunger is not your auntie, and it won’t give you a pie’. It means hunger is merciless, and it’s okay to do extreme things so you don’t starve.

Без труда не вытащишь рыбку из пруда. [Bes tru’da ne ‘vytashhish ‘rybku iz pru’da]
Literal translation: You cannot reel out fish from the pond without making an effort
Explanation: Not a single task can be done without putting some work and effort into it.

Губа не дура. [Gu’ba nʲˈe  ‘dura.]
Literal translation: Lips are not stupid.
Explanation: To have a taste for something nice; choose something very good for yourself.
Equivalent English proverb: Know which side your bread is buttered on.

Куй железо, пока горячё. [Kuj zhe’lezo pɐ’ka gorja’chjo.]
Literal translation: Forge iron while it’s hot.
Equivalent English Proverb: Make hay while the sun shines.

Носить воду в решете.  [Nɐ’sit’ ‘vodu v reshe’te]
Literal translation: Сarry water in a sieve
Explanation: To do a futile task.


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Russian Proverbs About Friendship and Love

Friendship is an important part of social life in Russia, and there are quite a few widely used proverbs about interpersonal relations.

Друг познается в беде. [Drug pozna’etsya v bʲɪ’de]
Equivalent English proverb:  A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Не имей сто рублей, а имей сто друзей. [Nʲˈe imʲˈej sto rub’lej, a imʲˈej sto dru’zej.]
Literal translation: It’s better to have 100 friends that 100 rubles.

Старый друг лучше новых двух. [‘Staryj drug ‘lutshe ‘novyh dvuh]
Literal translation: One old friend is better than two new ones.
Equivalent English proverb: Old friends and old wine are the best.

Любовь зла – полюбишь и козла. [Lyu’bov’ zla  pɐ’lyubish’ i kɐz’la]
Literal translation: Love is evil; you can fall in love with a goat.
Equivalent English proverb: Love is blind.

Любовь до гроба. [Lyu’bov’ də ‘grobə]
Literal translation: Love until you’re in the coffin.
Equivalent English expression: Undying love.

С глаз долой – из сердца вон. [S glas dɐ’loj  iz ‘sertsɐ von]
Literal translation/equivalent English proverb: Out of sight, out of mind.

Сердце не камень. [‘Sertse nʲˈe ‘kamen’]
Literal translation: A heart is not made of stone.
Explanation:  this expression is used to say when you feel sympathetic about someone’s problem and give in to their request.


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Other Popular Russian Proverbs

Native speakers may know hundreds of proverbs and idiomatic expressions in their mother tongue. But for foreign language learners, it’s good enough to know just some of them, and so it’s best to make sure they’re the most popular.
Let’s concentrate now on the most common proverbs that you are likely to hear when you communicate with Russian speakers.

Век живи , век учись (а дураком помрешь). [Vʲˈek zhi’vi , vek u’chis’ (a dura’kom pom’rjosh’)]
Literal translation: Always live, always learn (and die being a fool))
Equivalent English proverb: Live and learn.

Бережёного Бог бережёт. [Bere’zhyonogo Bog bere’zhyot.]
Literal translation: God helps the ones who help themselves.

В тесноте – да не в обиде. [v tesnɐ’tʲˈe  da ne v ɐ’bide]
Literal translation: Squeezed but pleased.
Explanation: This proverb is used to express when people get along well, even if a place is crammed. Russians are known for their hospitality and eagerness eager to accommodate friends and relatives, even if their property is tiny. That’s when they use this expression.

В каждой шутке есть доля правды. [v ‘kazhdɐj ‘shutke est’ ‘dolya ‘pravdy]
Literal translation: Every joke has a grain of truth.
Explanation: this proverb is used to say that jokes stem from the truth.

Время – деньги. [‘vremya – ‘den’gi]
Literal translation/equivalent English proverb: Time is money.

Красота требует жертв. [krɐsə’ta ‘trebuet zhertv]
Literal translation: Beauty requires sacrifice.
Explanation: Beauty has its price and needs constant work/effort.

Молчание – знак согласия. [mɐl’chanie – znak səg’lasiya]
English equivalent: Silence gives consent.

Слово серебро , а молчание – золото. [‘slovɐ serʲɪ’bro , a mol’chanie – ‘zolɐtə]
Literal translation: Words are silver and silence is golden.
Equivalent English saying: Silence is golden.
In Russian, too, the first half of the saying is often omitted and people just say ‘Молчание – золото’.

Семеро одного не ждут. [‘semerɐ ɐdnɐ’vo nʲˈe zhdut]
Literal translation: Seven [people] don’t wait for one.
Explanation: this expression is used to say that a group of people should not be held up because one person is late.

На безрыбье и рак – рыба. [na bez’ryb’ʲɪ i rak ‘ryba]
Literal translation:In a place with no fish a crawfish is a fish.
Equivalent English saying: Something is better than nothing.

Всему свое время. [vse’mu svɐe ‘vremya]
Literal translation/equivalent English saying:There is a time for everything.

Два сапога – пара. [dva sɐpɐ’ga – ‘para]
Literal translation: Two boots make a pair.
Equivalent English saying:Tarred with the same brush.

Яблоко от яблони недалеко падает. [‘yablɐkɐ ət ‘yablɐni nedalʲɪ ‘ko ‘padaʲɪ t]
Literal translation: An apple doesn’t fall far from the apple tree.
Explanation: This proverb has a negative connotation to express that children take bad qualities after their parents.

Что на уме, то и на языке. [chto na um’e, to i na ‘yazyke.]
Literal translation: What’s on one’s mind is on one’s tongue.
Equivalent English saying: What the heart thinks, the tongue speaks.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste of Russian proverbs, check out this post on Russian idioms. Idioms may be tougher than proverbs because their meanings may not make sense at first but as you come accustomed to Russian and the country’s culture, you’ll start to understand them.

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Ievgeniia Logvinenko is passionate about languages and holds a Master’s degree in English philology. In addition to English, she speaks Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, German and basic French.

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