33 Proverbs that Translate Well Between English and Mandarin

Following on from 23 Actually Useful Proverbs (谚语), I have come up with a list of proverbs that have some kind of equivalence between Chinese and English. I look forward to reading your comments, additions and criticisms!

1. There’s no use crying over spilt milk.
覆水难收 fù shuǐ nán shōu (“Spilt water is hard to recover.”)

2. The early bird gets the worm.
捷足先登 jié zú xiān dēng (“A fast foot is first to climb.”)

3. Misery loves company.
同病相怜 tóngbìngxiānglián (“Patients with similar conditions empathise with each other.”)

4. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
船到桥头自然直 chuán dào qiáotóu zì rán zhí (“The ship will reach the end of the bridge in due course.”)

5. What goes around, comes around.
善有善报,恶有恶报 shànyǒushànbào, èyǒu’èbào (“Kind deeds pay rich dividends, evil is repaid with evil.”)
种瓜得瓜 zhòngguādéguā (“As you sow a melon, so you shall reap one.”)
种豆得豆zhòngdòudédòu (“As you sow a bean, so you shall reap one.”)
媳妇熬成婆 xífù áo chéng pó (“A daughter-in-law who suffers will one day become a mother-in-law.”)

6. Like father, like son.
有其父必有其子 yǒu qí fù bì yǒu qí zǐ (“The son is like his father.”)
虎父无犬子 hǔ fù wú quǎn zǐ (“A tiger does not father a dog.”)

7. A friend in need is a friend indeed.
患难见真情 huànnàn jiàn zhēnqíng (“In adversity, true feelings are revealed.”)

8. No pain, no gain; nothing ventured, nothing gained.
不入虎穴,焉得虎子 bù rù hǔxuè, yāndé hǔ zǐ (“If you don’t enter the tiger’s den, how will you get the tiger’s cub?”)

9. Don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today.
今日事,今日毕 jīnrì shì, jīnrì bì (“Today’s task, today’s job to complete.”)

10. If you want something done well, do it yourself.
求人不如求己 qiúrén bùrú qiújǐ (“It’s better to rely on yourself than on the help of others.”)

11. Once bitten, twice shy.
一朝被蛇咬,十年怕井绳 yī zhāo bèi shé yǎo, shí nián pà jǐng shéng (“Bitten by a snake on one morning, afraid of the rope by the well for ten years.”)

12. All good things come to an end.
人无千日好,花无百日红 rén wú qiān rì hǎo, huā wú bǎi rì hóng (“There is no person that has 1000 good days in a row, and no flower that stays red for 100 days.”)

13. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
入乡随俗 rù xiāng suí sú (“When entering a village, follow its customs.”)

14. When it rains, it pours.
屋漏偏逢连夜雨 wū lòu piān féng lián yè yǔ (“When the roof is leaking, that’s when you get several continuous nights of rain.”)
一波未平,一波又起 yī bō wèi píng yī bō yòu qǐ (“Just as one wave subsides, another one comes.”)
喝口凉水都能塞牙缝 hē kǒu liángshuǐ dōu neng sài yáfèng (“Even water gets stuck in your teeth.”)

15. Two heads are better than one.
三个臭皮匠,胜过诸葛亮 sān ge chòupíjiàng, shèng guò Zhūgé Liàng (“Three unskilled cobblers are superior to one Zhuge Liang.”)

16. Easy come, easy go.
三十年河东,三十年河西 sān shí nián hé dōng, sān shí nián hé xī (“Thirty years on the east side of the river, thirty years on the west side of the river.”)

17. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
山不转路转 shān bù zhuǎn lù zhuǎn (“A mountain cannot turn, but a road can.”)

18. Practice makes perfect.
熟能生巧 shú néng shēng qiǎo (“Experience can give way to skill.”)

19. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
冰冻三尺,非一日之寒 bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi yī rì zhī hán (“Three feet of ice is not the result of one cold day.”)
罗马不是一日建成的  Luómǎ bù shì yī rì jiàn chéng de (literal translation)

20. Heaven helps those who help themselves.
皇天不负苦心人 huángtiān bù fù kǔxīn rén (“Heaven won’t betray people who try their best.”)

21. Beggars can’t be choosers.
饥不择食 jībùzéshí (“The starving can’t choose their meals.”)

22. Speak of the devil and he shall appear.
说曹操,曹操到 shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào (“Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives.”)

23. The first step is the hardest.
万事起头难 wànshì qǐtóu nán (“The first step in a thousand different matters is always difficult.”)

24. Birds of a feather, flock together.
物以类聚 wù yǐ lèijù (“Similar things are categorised together.”)

25. You get what you pay for.
一分钱,一分货 yī fēn qián, yī fēn huò (“Ten yuan of money, ten yuan of goods.”)

26. Great minds think alike.
英雄所见略同 yīngxióng suǒjiànlüètóng (“The views of heroes are roughly alike.”)

27. One can’t have one’s cake and eat it too.
鱼与熊掌不可兼得 yú yǔ xióng zhǎng bù kě jiān dé (“One cannot get fish and bear’s paw at the same time.”)
又要马儿好,又要马儿不吃草 (“You want a good horse, but won’t give it grass to eat.”)

28. Haste makes waste.
欲速则不达 yùsù zé bùdá (“You desire speed but cannot reach your destination.”)

29. How time flies!
光阴似箭 guāngyīn sì jiàn (“Time is like an arrow.”)

30. Seeing is believing.
百闻不如一见 bǎi wén bùrú yī jiàn (“Hearing something one hundred times is not as good as seeing it once.”)

31. Every cloud has a silver lining.
塞翁失马,焉知非福 sàiwēngshīmǎ, yān zhī fēi fú (“When the old man from the frontier lost his horse, how could one have known that it would not be fortuitous?”)

32. Money talks.
钱可通神 qiánkětōngshén or 钱能通神 qiánnéngtōngshén (“Money is divine.”)
金钱万能 jīnqián wànnéng (“Money is almighty.”)
有钱能使鬼推磨 yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuīmó (“If you have money you can ask for favours.”)

33. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
情人眼里出西施 qíngrén yǎnlǐ chū Xī Shī (“In the eyes of a lover, Xi Shi [one of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China] appears.”

35 Comments to "33 Proverbs that Translate Well Between English and Mandarin"

  1. Commiserate's Gravatar Commiserate
    14/12/2010 - 3:59 pm | Permalink

    What a beautiful and savoury collection! Thanks for sharing!

    Btw, “emphasise” -> “empathise”

    And “Today’s task, today’s job to complete.” → Perhaps “Today’s task/job, to be completed today.”

    This one I’m not sure: “You desire speed but…” → “You desire speeds(?)…”

    So much ancient wisdom worth contemplating over. I love the historical references and vivid imagery of the Chinese proverbs.
    Look forward to reading more cool posts of yours.

  2. 14/12/2010 - 5:20 pm | Permalink

    You are truly a gold mine! Thanks for all the hard work!

  3. hanmeng's Gravatar hanmeng
    15/12/2010 - 10:01 am | Permalink

    This is a great collection. Thanks!

  4. Kaiwen's Gravatar Kaiwen
    16/12/2010 - 12:32 am | Permalink

    头回上当 二回心亮 is less common, but also along the lines of “once bitten”.

    “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” also has several Chinese translations; as far as I know these were created post hoc like 罗马不是一日建成的:
    骗我一次,算你狠。 骗我两次,是我蠢。
    骗我一次,你坏蛋。骗我两次,我笨蛋。

  5. 20/12/2010 - 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff, cheers Carl. Couple more that come to mind:

    岁月不饶人/time and tide waits for no man
    一石二鸟/to kill two birds with one stone

  6. 20/12/2010 - 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Great list, I love your posts!

    I remember coming across “到什么山,唱什么歌” somewhere, but can’t remember where. I think it’s pretty similar to “when in Rome…”, with 山歌 being “folk song”, i.e. “follow local customs”.

  7. Joe's Gravatar Joe
    22/12/2010 - 5:59 am | Permalink

    You can’t tell a book by looking at its cover
    人不可面相。
    Walls have ears
    隔墙有耳。
    A miss is as good as a mile
    差之毫厘, 失之千里。
    A rising tide lifts all boats
    水涨船高。

    • Yu's Gravatar Yu
      24/02/2012 - 5:59 pm | Permalink

      The first one is人不可貌相, not 人不可面相. I have never heard anyone said”人不可面相”.

  8. 28/12/2010 - 6:40 am | Permalink

    Great list!!

    One thing though, I just learnt from a venerable Native Speaker that the Chinese expressions in #5 (“What goes around, comes around”) can have different connotations:
    “善有善报,恶有恶报“ naturally means that good deeds are repaid with good ones etc, but the following sentences (种豆得豆,种瓜得瓜,媳妇熬成婆) are only relevant to good deeds: one must first suffer before something good comes along. (from what I was told, this has no ‘bad karma’ involved)

    Cheers!

  9. Walter's Gravatar Walter
    06/01/2011 - 7:45 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful post! My favourite has got to be 冰冻三尺,非一日之寒, although the version I hear was 冰冻三尺,非寒一时(or 一日).

    A version I hear more frequently of chubb’s mention of “kill two birds with one stone” is 一箭双雕 (two eagles with a single arrow). I’ve also seen on the web 一举两得 being used in that sense.

  10. daofeishi's Gravatar daofeishi
    17/01/2011 - 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Great list! What about “五十步笑百步”? (Very similar to “the pot calling the kettle black”)

  11. 09/06/2011 - 7:20 am | Permalink

    Great list indeed. I would like to add one more

    说起来容易,做起来难 (Easier said than done)

    http://mychinesenotebook.blogspot.com/2011/05/chinese-proverb-easier-said-than-done.html

    • Cecilia's Gravatar Cecilia
      23/10/2014 - 5:20 am | Permalink

      “Easier said than done” can also be 知易行難

  12. 15/08/2011 - 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Luv this one: (“One cannot get fish and bear’s paw at the same time.”)

    May have to use that one with the kids! That will be an all time Dad comment.

    Rich

  13. 18/08/2011 - 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Great article! My brother is learning Mandarin at the moment, so shall pass this on. Thanks again

  14. 30/08/2011 - 1:19 am | Permalink

    Absolutely brilliant, think I’m going to start using these instead of the English ones. If you don’t enter the tiger’s den, how will you get the tiger’s cub sounds so much better.

  15. 16/12/2011 - 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, had such a hard time learning Mandarin for our required foreign language. I salute you! Time to take down notes.

  16. Curtis's Gravatar Curtis
    01/01/2012 - 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I just discovered your web site; it is outstanding. A note and a question:

    1. The saying 船到橋頭自然直 has a couplet which is  車到山前必有路 (“When the cart reaches the foot of the mountains, there will certainly be a road through them”).

    2. Incidentally, in translating 船到橋頭自然直 how does one account for 自然直 (“will automatically straighten out”)? I envision a boat floating down a river and approaching a bridge. The boat’s aspect is somewhat askew to the prevailing current, much to the alarm of its inexperienced passengers. But as the experienced pilot knows, with little help from him the boat will tend to straighten up as it enters the swifter flowing water caused by the constriction of the stream by the “bridge heads” (i.e., bridge piers or abutments). This is somewhat analogous to an aircraft landing in a cross wind; it crabs in against the wind but at the last minute it straightens up (with help from the pilot, of course) for a perfect landing. Perhaps the saying can be translated with some variation of “When the boat approaches (the fast current caused by) the bridge abutment (or piers) it will straighten up of its own accord (and slip through).”

    I am looking forward to reading more from you. Please keep up the good work!

  17. 19/07/2012 - 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful, thanks for sharing.
    No.16 三十年河东,三十年河西 ‘easy come, easy go’ looks not so suitable to this.
    ‘三十年河东,三十年河西’ 比喻人事的盛衰兴替,变化无常,难以预料.

  18. Arang's Gravatar Arang
    18/08/2012 - 8:59 pm | Permalink

    my mom always remind me this…
    畫虎畫皮難畫骨

  19. Wim's Gravatar Wim
    29/12/2012 - 4:48 am | Permalink

    Great site,
    Please allow me to add:
    林子大了,什么鸟多有
    It takes all kinds to make a world.

    • kevin's Gravatar kevin
      21/04/2013 - 9:27 pm | Permalink

      Wonderful website. Great work. Bookmarked for more.

  20. Bebececilla's Gravatar Bebececilla
    28/07/2013 - 12:50 am | Permalink

    一年之计在于春,一日之计在于晨

  21. Benjamin's Gravatar Benjamin
    16/08/2013 - 8:06 am | Permalink

    “Easy come, easy go” may be translated into 冤枉來, 瘟疫去
    This is a Cantonese expression.

  22. Antonio's Gravatar Antonio
    18/11/2013 - 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I read the proper translation to 一箭双雕 is ‘a double-edged sword’, which is related to the pros and cons of whatever. The one with the above mentioned meaning (‘two eagle with a single arrow’) could be wrong, because in that case we use 一石二鸟 .

  23. tee's Gravatar tee
    21/06/2014 - 12:43 pm | Permalink

    再穷也不能穷教育

  24. Iris's Gravatar Iris
    23/08/2014 - 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi Carl,

    Thank you, I’ve leant a lot from your post.
    Just wanna say that there’s minor issues I want do discuss with you in this post:

    5. What goes around, comes around.
    善有善报,恶有恶报 shànyǒushànbào, èyǒu’èbào (“Kind deeds pay rich dividends, evil is repaid with evil.”)
    种瓜得瓜 zhòngguādéguā (“As you sow a melon, so you shall reap one.”)
    种豆得豆zhòngdòudédòu (“As you sow a bean, so you shall reap one.”)
    媳妇熬成婆 xífù áo chéng pó (“A daughter-in-law who suffers will one day become a mother-in-law.”)

    I think 善有善报,恶有恶报 ; 种瓜得瓜,种豆得豆 are both really good ways to translate “what goes around comes around”, however 媳妇熬成婆 doesn’t relate to this meaning closely. It actually has a sense of “finally the bad days have passed, you can now relax a bit”.

    27. One can’t have one’s cake and eat it too.
    鱼与熊掌不可兼得 yú yǔ xióng zhǎng bù kě jiān dé (“One cannot get fish and bear’s paw at the same time.”)
    又要马儿好,又要马儿不吃草 (“You want a good horse, but won’t give it grass to eat.”)

    I think here it should be 又要马儿”跑”,又要马儿不吃草 instead of “好”, meaning “you want the horse to run, but don’t want it to eat grass”

    And I agree with Liuwd’s comment at 19/07/2012 – 1:01 pm

    No.16 三十年河东,三十年河西 ‘easy come, easy go’ looks not so suitable to this.
    ‘三十年河东,三十年河西’ 比喻人事的盛衰兴替,变化无常,难以预料.

    三十年河东,三十年河西meaning things can change completely unlike what you predicted before. I am afraid it has nothing to do with “easy come, easy go”.

    Thank you for sharing all these, hope to see more of your wonderful work!

    Iris

  25. Billy Rubin's Gravatar Billy Rubin
    09/03/2015 - 7:44 am | Permalink

    Man who throw friend under bus today, get run over by same bus tomorrow.

  26. Gerald Kingsbury's Gravatar Gerald Kingsbury
    31/05/2015 - 8:31 pm | Permalink

    If you want the tiger’s cub, you have to go into the tiger’s cave.. (no pain, no gain!)
    What is this in Mandarin?

    • Karen's Gravatar Karen
      08/09/2016 - 7:12 pm | Permalink

      (Pinyin): bù rù hǔxué, yān dé hǔzǐ
      不入虎穴,焉得虎子

  27. 06/06/2015 - 4:19 pm | Permalink

    What a great and useful collection of the proverbs! Nice translation too!
    How about “like mother like daughter”, what is the Chinese word for it?
    Thanks : )

  28. Bob's Gravatar Bob
    21/03/2016 - 7:04 pm | Permalink

    25. You get what you pay for.
    一分钱,一分货 yī fēn qián, yī fēn huò (“Ten yuan of money, ten yuan of goods.”)

    一分 yi fen is 1 cent, 十元 shi yuan is ten yuan.

  29. Terry's Gravatar Terry
    07/04/2017 - 1:03 am | Permalink

    Has anyone heard of a Chinese saying “Only bite once it’s in your mouth.” My martial arts teacher told me it in English but his Mandarin is too weak to help me find the original.

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