Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Russian Proverbs About Wolves

Proverbs are concentrated common wisdom. Catchy phrases and proverbs often have “twin-brothers” in different languages, maybe because common wisdom looks pretty much the same in various cultures, or because popular sayings migrate from one area to another. Translators like to explain a proverb in one language with its equivalent in a target language, however, sometimes results can be misleading.

I was looking for Russian proverbs about wolves for my new project and found that to understand the meaning and the flavour of the Russian proverbs, one has to know how Russians see wolves in general.

Russians have been sharing their habitat with wolves for centuries. Russians observed wolves and learned their habits, in order to cope with such dangerous neighbours. No surprise that there are so many tales, lullabies and proverbs about wolves in Russia. Wolves in the Russian folklore are, first of all, aggressive, but what is more important, they have no compassion. Wolf is a beast that knows no mercy, trusts nobody and, very often, has no friends. Wolves can collaborate and even build some social ties, but their community is always based on the might of the strongest and the only reason for wolves to co-operate is to improve their efficiency in hunting.

Wolves appreciate their freedom and untamed state. Unlike dogs, they can not be domesticated and can not serve a man. Dogs are faithful servants, while wolves always pursue their own interests and wouldn’t hesitate a moment to betray their master.

I don’t know whether these observations are correct and can be used as guidance for wildlife watchers, but they can definitely help in understanding some popular Russian sayings.

“С волками жить - по вольчи выть” (live with wolves, and you’ll learn how to howl) is often seen as the equivalent of “In Rome, do as Romans do”. Well, up to a point, those two proverbs look similar, yet, the Russian phrase is not about how wise it is to act in accordance with the social norms of the society you are currently dealing with. The Russian proverb is about how society forms your personality. If people around you are like wolves - merciless, selfish, cruel individualists - sooner or later, you’ll become like them, and your soul will cry in desperation (this is how Russians interpreted wolves’ howling - a cry of desperation).

Another proverb, Сколько волка ни корми, он всё в лес смотрит (the wolf that is being fed enough nevertheless is looking to the woods) is about people who, like wolves, never feel grateful and have no attachment to those, who love them and are good to them. It is also a warning to those who think that if you are trying your best to please another man or woman, you can eventually bond him or her to your company. The Russian proverb is unequivocal here: no, you can’t change someone else’s nature, no matter how well you treat him or her.

To finish on a brighter note, here is a proverb that is playful and ambivalent: “Работа не волк, в лес не убежит” (Work is not like a wolf - it won't run into the woods). I used to think that this saying is a great excuse for procrastinators: why bother about the work to be done if you can always do it later? Find the right work/ life balance and be happy! However, while browsing the Internet and searching for translations of it, I found many people (both native speakers and learners of Russian) believing that this proverb means quite the opposite: why procrastinating? The work is not going to be done on its own, if you don’t do it, nobody will do it for you. I honestly don’t know which explanation is correct. Perhaps, both - this proverb is not the only one in Russian that flips its meaning easily.