Monday, July 9, 2012

Carrying Cumin to Kerman


By Heidi Noroozy

Ever since my college days, I’ve collected proverbs, those metaphorical sayings that express a universal truth. It all started because one of my German professors who’d specialized in folklore brought his love of these sayings into the classroom. He had us collect examples of proverbs and their representations in art and popular culture, and when we stumbled over points of grammar and hard-to-remember vocabulary, he’d urge us to keep trying. “Aller guten Dinge sind drei,” he’d say. Three’s a charm.

To celebrate his own favorite—“see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” (nichts sehen, nichts hören, nichts sagen in German)—my professor filled his office with images of the three wise monkeys associated with this phrase. It is what people say when they don’t want to involve themselves in a situation that is likely to bring them trouble. Although I’ve often heard that this proverb originated in Japan or China, I can’t help noticing how similar it is to the Zoroastrian principle of “think good thoughts, speak good words, do good deeds.”


My husband shares my love of proverbs, although he doesn’t always realize his favorite sayings hail from these pithy expressions, and he tends to translate them into English literally. Early in our marriage he’d accuse me of “being in another garden” when he had trouble getting my attention. Unfortunately for him, even today I’m often in another world, a fictional realm that can feel more real to me than my physical reality—especially when I’m deep in the first draft of a story.

Or when I’m out of sorts and complaining too much, he’ll say “the food is always tastier in the neighbor’s house.” Yes, I know—the grass is greener… To be honest, I never really understood the English equivalent of this proverb. Why should I care where the grass is the greenest? If I were a cow, horse, or even a goat, perhaps it would make sense. But show me the way to a good meal, and I’ll follow you anywhere.

Another one of my favorite Farsi proverbs has an equivalent in many languages: zeyereh be Kerman bordan (carrying cumin to Kerman). It means to engage in pointless activity, the equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle. Just as Newcastle was once a major coal-exporting town, the Iranian city of Kerman is famous for its cumin. I like this proverb because it lends itself to endless variations: carrying roses to Kashan, tea to Lahijan, or carpets to, well, just about anywhere in Iran.

Do you have a favorite proverb? If you do, share it in our comments section—in any language you like!


6 comments:

  1. I love the translation of this expression into English--carrying cumin to Kerman has such great alliteration. I'm going to use that translation in the future. It will require an explanation, and I can go into my spiel about cross-cultural things.

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    1. This proverb is a great way to start a conversation with all its variations. :) Is there an equivalent in Italian?

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  2. My dad taught me this Tamil proverb I love: Yaadhum Oore, Yaavarum Kelir.

    It roughly translates to: I belong to every country / all the people of the world are my brothers.

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    1. That's one saying everyone should adopt. Thanks for sharing it, Gigi.

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  3. I've been trying to work out the "coals to Newcastle" equivalent in Chinese, but haven't found it yet! Even Google let me down. ;) Anyway, I like cumin better than I like coal, so maybe I'll start using this one. Thanks for sharing, Heidi.

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    1. Maybe you'll have to make one up, Beth. :)

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