The beauty of Burmese sayings

I just came back from a family outing to the movies (it’s a family tradition). While watching Valkyrie, about a coup attempt by Nazi officers of Adolf Hitler’s government under the guise of Hitler’s assassination during WWII, my mom uttered another one of her sayings. Unfortunately, The movie wasn’t a thriller as advertised (especially because everyone knows what really happened to Hitler).

Watching the final minutes of the movie, my mom whispered to me the Burmese saying သေရင်မြေကြီး ရှင်ရင်ရွှေထီး (thay yin myay-gyi, shin yin shwe hti), poorly translated ‘death means going to the ground, living means being under a golden umbrella’ because Burmese kings were shaded underneath a ceremonial golden umbrella. The saying refers to certain situations such as coups in which people face a life-or-death situation, either becoming “king” (succeeding) or being buried (failing).

My mom has a store of thousands of Burmese sayings in her mind, appropriate for every situation. It’s actually quite remarkable (when my dad married my mom, he realized her penchant for Burmese sayings and starting keeping a notebook of thousands of sayings she’s said).

I personally love Burmese sayings, how such few words can have such meaning and how lyrical they are. But I’m really bad at translating them into English, because it’s hard to retain the same poetic quality. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. စကားနည်း ရန်စဲ
    Zaga ne, yan ze
    Less talk, less enemies. (About being cautious with one’s words)
  2. ထမင်းအသက် ခုနှစ်ရက် ရေအသက် တစ်မနက်
    Htamin a-thet ku-hnit yet, yay a-thet ta ma-net
    One can survive without food for  7 days, but without water for only 1 morning. (About the importance of drinking water)
  3. ကုလားမနိုင်ရခိုင်မဲ
    Kala ma naing, Yakhaing me
    Because you can’t dominate the Indian, you pick on the Arakanese. (About some people who are mad take it out on others)
  4. ခွေးမှီးကောက်ကျည်တောက်စွပ်
    Khway hmi kauk, kyi-htauk sut
    A dog’s crooked tail straightened with a bamboo rod. (About temporary solutions to everpresent problems and quick fix solutions)
  5. ကျွန်းကိုင်းမှီ၊ ကိုင်းကျွန်းမှီ
    Kyun kaing hmi, kaing kyun hmi
    Islands rely on reeds just as the reeds rely on islands. (About mutual dependence)
  6. ပါးစပ်ကဘုရား ဘုရား၊ လက်ကကားရား ကားရား
    Bazat ga phaya phaya, let ga kaya kaya
    Mouth says “God, God” but hands do otherwise. (About practicing what one preaches)
  7. သေကံမရောက် အသက်မပျောက်
    Thay gan ma yauk, a-thet ma pyauk
    Life cannot vanish without reaching the destiny of fate. (About people beat the odds of mortality)
  8. ပညာရွှေအိုး လူမခိုး
    Pyinna shwe o, lu ma ko
    Education is like a golden pot nobody can steal. (About the importance of education)

Note: This post requires a Unicode 5.1 Burmese font (I highly recommend Padauk.) Zawgyi and other pseudo-Unicode fonts will not properly display the following Burmese text.

18 thoughts on “The beauty of Burmese sayings

  1. mabaydar says:

    More saying or proverb I can think of…
    Could you continues with the sequel for this post?

    1. A thet ta yar ma nay ya, a mhu ta yar pway ya
    2. nay nae la, shwe nae mya
    3. ngote mi thae tai, tat naing phyar yout
    4. Pyin nyar lo old the ma shi
    5. oe ka ma pu, sa laung ka pu
    6. A may kyaw, dwe daw lwan
    7. Nay yate a lar, Nay pu ka saunt
    8. Phin ma naing pae, pae` kyi hin thout
    9. ku thol ta pae`, nga ye` ta pate thar.
    10. ko mway dae myout, koh pyan chout

    Looking forward to next entry.

  2. Wagaung says:

    My favourites are:

    1. Khway bazat ka nat sagar htwet
    An angel’s words from the snout of a dog

    2. Kyauk lwè, yè min hpyit
    Timidity misses the opportunity, a bold stroke seizes the throne.
    (Decisive action takes bold determination.)

    3. Ngote mi thè daing, tet naing hpyar yauk
    Dive till you hit the sand, climb till you reach the top. (Perseverance)

    4. Thit ngote myint tone, myet myint tone
    One moment the tree stump is taller, the next it’s the grass.
    Hman ginn ta-hlè htinn ta-hlè
    One moment it’s the palace finial, the next it’s turned firewood.
    (the ups and downs in life)

    5. Myay naint ya hlan site
    It’s the lower ground the spear hits.
    (a soft target)

    6. Ma shi khoe noe, ma hla sone yoe
    The poor might seem to thieve, the ugly might seem evil.
    (stereotypes)

    7. Nu ya wè swè, lè ya thakhoe htaung
    Scabies on top of leprosy, beaten up when you are down.
    (Misfortune never comes singly.)

    8. Mway hmount ya kinn pu
    Where snakes threaten, scorpions hassle.
    (another problem you could do without)

    9. Myet kann tasay ma kyauk
    The blind have no fear of ghosts.
    (Ignorance is bliss.)

    10. Lu dago htin talone
    Each to their self overestimation
    (conceit)

  3. hintha says:

    Thanks for the feedback! I’ve been thinking of starting a side project, compiling Burmese proverbs, and posting them, perhaps on a daily or weekly basis, on a microblog like Tumblr. Seeing that there’s a lot of interest, I might just do that!

    There’s a pretty comprehensive Burmese proverbs website (http://www.mmproverb.com/) out, but it’s unfortunately all in Burmese, so it’s inaccessible to English speakers.

    • Wagaung says:

      These seem apposite what with the imminent opening up of Burma towards a more extensive extractive industries based economy.

      1. Chan seeyoe htin khway
      Gathering firewood from your own fence

      2. Yatha yin, ba napoo thike too me
      Wouldn’t spare his father’s head if there’s treasure to be mined inside.

      3. Tha-yay baw ate, tha-yay nar sar
      (a dog) sleep on a piece of leather, nibble round the edges too.

      4. A yate nay nay, a khet choe choe
      Use its shade and break its branches.

      5. Ya lay lo lay, o tasay
      The more you get the more you want

  4. betty says:

    @wagaung Do you have a written reference for the following?

    3. Ngote mi thè daing, tet naing hpyar yauk
    Dive till you hit the sand, climb till you reach the top. (Perseverance)

    Would love to see how it looks like in burmese to show my parents.

  5. Sara says:

    Hello! There is a proverb that speaks of a smile ? it will be (sorry for my english) somenthing about: if you meet someone without a smile; give him one of yours.

    Thank you very much!

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