Every language has proverbs, and these are usually translations or variations of those found in other languages and cultures. In fact, proverbs are quite universal in that way.
Proverbs are handed down through generations – almost like folklore. They use metaphorical language to express a perceived truth based on a generalization or life experience.
I've found Thai proverbs to be quite useful. Often a proverb provides a simple way of explaining a situation that might otherwise hit the language barrier.
So hopefully you'll find this list useful when speaking to your Thai partner or friends.
12 Thai Proverbs & Their English Translations
1. When the cat's away, the mice will play
This is a common English saying, meaning that one can do as they like in the absence of authority / a watchful eye.
When literally translated, the Thai version is a little different:
- แมวไม่อยู่หนูร่าเริง – meaw mai yoo noo ra reng
- Translation: The cat is away, the mouse is cheerful
2. Out of the frying pan into the fire
Again, a common English phrase that means to escape one problem only to encounter something worse.
The Thai version uses a tiger and a crocodile to illustrate this:
- หนีเสื่อประจระเข้ – nee seua pa ja ra kay
- Translation: To escape from the tiger to the crocodile.
3. Like talking to a brick wall
If you're married your wife has probably said this to you numerous times :). It's a classic and is said to someone who doesn't listen.
The Thais have a very unique way of saying this.
- สีซอให้ควายฟัง – see sor hai kwai fang
- Translation: To play the violin for the buffalo to listen to.
4. You can't have your cake and eat it
A favorite of mine, this proverb applies to a situation where there are two options but you can't have both, or, more loosely, that you can only have it so good, and can't have it all.
The Thai version of this is:
- จับปลาสองมือ – jab pla song meu
- Translation: Catch a fish with two hands.
I've heard this used to refer to a “playboy”: a man who has a wife but carries on with other women.
5. Every cloud has a silver lining
If you're from the UK like me, you certainly grew up with this one. It means that every negative circumstance has a comforting or more hopeful aspect, even though this may not be immediately apparent.
The Thai version of this is a little different in that it simply suggests everything balances itself out, the good and the bad.
- ชั่วเจ็ดทีดีเจ็ดหน – chua jed tee dee jed hon
- Translation: Bad seven times, good seven times.
6. Calling a spade a spade
This old-fashioned saying means to speak frankly, to describe something as it truly is, even if it may cause offense. The Thai version is more poetic in nature:
- ขวานผ่าซาก – kwan par sark
- Translation: Splitting a hard wood with an axe.
* Despite being a harmless gardening tool, it should be noted that in the mid 1920s the word spade emerged among the African American community as a reference to a black person. This further evolved into, among others, a racist word. Therefore, some people refrain from using this proverb to avoid any confusion and subsequent offense.
7. A bad workman blames his tools
Something we've all been guilty of, especially those of use who are terrible at DIY. This proverb means that someone who has done something badly will seek to lay the blame on their equipment rather than admit their own lack of competence.
I really like the Thai version of this one, as it uses music to create the metaphor:
- รำไมดีโทษปี่โทษกลอง – rum mai dee tod pee tod glong
- Translation: Those who can’t dance blame it on the flute and the drum.
8. Make hay while the sun shines
My mum always used to say this to us kids as we were growing up. It means to make the most of a favorable situation while it lasts. If you have an opportunity to do something, do it before that opportunity disappears.
This reminds me of another of my favorite proverbs: don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
The Thai version of ‘make hay while the sun shines is':
- น้ำขึ้นให้รีบตัก – nam keun hai reep dtak
- Translation: When the water rises, hurry to get some
9. Doing a good deed without wanting praise
I'm not sure what the English equivalent for this is; though I'm sure there's one.
- ปิดทองหลังพระ – pid tong lang pra
- Translation: Putting a gold leaf on the back of the Buddha image.
The act of putting gold leaves on a Buddha image is primarily to honor Buddha's teachings, though in Thailand it is also a form of making merit, which makes the proverb a tad hypocritical, perhaps?
10. You can’t make an omelette without breaking any eggs
I'd actually never heard this proverb before but it applies when you have to go through something difficult for a good result, or to experience hardship to gain a desirable outcome.
The Thai version is nice and concise:
- ได้อย่างเสียอย่าง – dai yang sia yang
- Translation: You have to lose something to get another thing.
11. Prevention is better than cure
Commonly heard in the West, this quite obviously means that it's easier to stop something happening in the first place than to repair the damage after it has happened. This translates exactly the same in Thai:
- กันไว้ดีกว่าแก้ – Gan wy dtee gwaa gae
* Note that a similar saying in English, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, is: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure
12. Like mother, like daughter
This Thai proverb will come in handy for those with a Thai girlfriend/wife 🙂
This means that daughters tend to do what their mothers did before them, and more generally that daughters resemble their mothers.
The Thai version is actually more like the proverb “the apple doesn't fall far from the tree”, and makes good use of metaphor:
- ดูช้างให้ดูหางดูนางให้ดูแม่ – duu cháang hâi duu hăng duu naang hâi duu mâae
- Translation: When you look at an elephant, look at its tail. When you look at a girl, look at her mother.
Got a Thai proverb to add to the list? Leave it in the comments section below.
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