Pantuns, proverbs and expressions translated into English for our mutual edification.

      • “Padi tunduk berhasil sudah, lalang megah isi tiada.”

“Padi bows with rice aplenty, lalang stands in pride yet empty.” Meaning, the more you have the humbler you should be. (Lalang is a noxious weed.)

      • “Lembut-lembut lintah, melekat payah lucutnya.”

“Leeches start soft but once latched on are hard to detach.”  Malay version courtesy of Ainunl Muaiyanah.

  • “Carik-carik bulu ayam, lama-lama bercantum juga.”

“No matter how you ruffle chicken feathers, in the end they stick together.” Meaning, the family bond survives quarrel and disagreement. Proverb courtesy of my son, who is busy working on his college application essays.

      • “Mulut tempayan boleh ditutup,
        Mulut manusia bagaimana menetupnya.”

“The mouth of a pot can be closed,
Not so the mouths of men.”

      • “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah”

“When elephants clash, mouse-deer die underfoot.”  The brother of the Prime Minister explains the meaning in his instagram account as “When the powerful fight each other, everything else can be collateral damage.”

      • “Kaduk naik junjung.”

“Like kaduk rising to the top.”  Going beyond one’s ability or station, especially in a showy way. Kaduk is otherwise known as sirih duduk or sitting betel-leaf. Although closely related with nearly identical leaves, sirih is a climbing vine while kaduk is a low sprawling bush. Kaduk, sirih and black pepper are The Three Pipers.

      • “Kalau tiada angin bertiup takkan pokok bergoyang.”

“If wind wasn’t blowing, trees wouldn’t be swaying.”  Comparable to the English saying, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

      • “Ikan busuk mula dari kepalanya.”

“Fish rots from the head down.” As deployed by the Minister of Home Affairs in a speech on integrity and opposing corruption in the civil service.

      • “Tong kosong nyaring bunyinya.”

“Empty cans make the most noise.” Translation courtesy of Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, Malaysian gymnast who won a gold medal at the 2015 SEA Games.

      • “Macam Belanda mendapat tanah.”

“Like a Dutchman getting land.” Grasping greediness, similar in usage to “Give an inch, he’ll take a mile.”

      • “Jangan nantikan nasi disajikan dilutut.”

“Don’t wait for rice to be served at the knee.” Meaning, don’t expect something without effort, as translated and explained by Syed Hussein Al-Atas in The Myth of the Lazy Native. (Rice is served at the knee if you are sitting bersila on the floor to eat.)

      • “Pandai tak boleh diikut, bodoh tak boleh diajar.”

“Intelligence you can’t follow, ignorance you can’t teach.” Not so much a proverb as a choice turn of phrase for that persistent idiot in your life. We all have one…

      • “Masuk bakul angkat sendiri.”

“Climbing in the basket and lifting it yourself.” To compliment yourself, similar to the English “patting yourself on the back”.

      • “Bapa kencing berdiri, anak kencing berlari.”

“When the father urinates standing, the child will urinate running.” Bewildering, until we realize that traditionally Malay men sit to urinate, in accordance with the Sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him. But the point of the proverb is that good character must be carefully inculcated. Small flaws in one generation becomes disastrous in the next. Like father like son, but more so.

      • “Terlepas perahu boleh undur, terlepas kata buruk padahnya.”

“A boat past the dock can be reversed, words past the lips are a disaster forever.” Inspired by the twitter utterings of local politician Bung Moktar Radin.

      • “Merajuk pada yang sudi”

“Sulk with someone who cares.” Not a dismissive statement but a helpful one. Sulking will get you nowhere unless there is someone willing to comfort you (pujuk).

      • “Kera di hutan disusukan, anak di rumah mati kelaparan.”

“In the jungle nursing monkeys while the child dies of hunger at home.”
An old proverb about misplaced priorities, often deployed to devastating effect by pro-development politicians.

[Nursing monkeys in Sarawak [1][2]]

      • “Durian dengan mentimun, menggolek kena, kena golek pun kena.”

“Whether the durian hits the cucumber or the other way round, it’s going to be bad for the cucumber.”

      • “Hujan emas di negeri orang hujan batu di negeri sendiri.”

“Showers of gold in a foreign land are no better than a hail of stones in your own.”

      • “Ukur baju ikut badan sendiri.”

“Measure your clothes to fit your own body.” = Live within your means.

      • “Tepuk dada tanya selera.”

“Tap your chest and ask its pleasure.” = Do as you please.

      • “Di mana tumpahnya kuah kalau tak ke nasi?”

“Where pours the sauce if not upon the rice?” – Like father, like son.

      • “Lebih besar periuk lebih banyak keraknya.”

“The larger the pot, the more rice sticks to the bottom.” – As income rises, so do costs;
cf.  Mo money, mo problems (Smalls, B. 1997).

      • “Nasi sudah jadi bubur.”

“The rice has become porridge.” – The situation is irreversible.

      • “Keras-keras kerak nasi.”

“Tough like burnt rice.” – Stubbornness that crumbles under pressure.

      • “Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi.”

Applied to betrayal of trust by those in positions of responsibility.  As spelled, it would mean “Trust the fence, then the fence eats the rice.” But as astute readers have informed me, pagar here is actually pegar, the pheasant, so “Place your trust in the pheasant [to chase away other birds], then the pheasant eats the rice.” Due to mistransliteration from jawi in the past, the original meaning is now not widely known.

      • “Telur sebiji, riuh sekampung.”

“A single egg, a village in uproar.” – Making a big deal over a small accomplishment. Wisdom from chickens.

      • “Bersusah-susah dahulu, Bersenang-senang kemudian.”

“Facing difficulties in the beginning yields ease in the end.” – said of e.g. child-rearing.

      • “Hidup segan, mati tak mahu.”

“Afraid to live, unwilling to die.”

      • “Garam di laut, asam di darat
        Di dalam kuali bertemu juga.”

“Limes* from dry land, salt from the sea
In the pot may meet eventually.”

      • “Hangat-hangat tahi ayam.”

“Hot like chickenshit.” – Temporary enthusiasm.  [Yet more chicken-related wisdom.]

      • “Lentur buluh biar dari rebungnya.” 

“Bend the bamboo while it is young.” – Said of children.

      • “Rambut sama hitam, tapi hati lain-lain.”

“The same black hair, but different hearts.” – Universal wisdom …in an East Asian context.

      • “Air beriak tanda tak dalam.”

“The loudest rapids hide shallow waters.” – Similar to the tong kosong above.

      • “Sekali air bah, sekali pantai berubah.”

“The shore shifts with every wave.” – Not entirely sure of the sense of this, but it reminds me of “you never step in the same river twice.”

      • “Marahkan nyamuk, habis kelambu dibakar.”

“Burning the tent down to kill a mosquito.” – Disproportionate response, blind anger.

      • “Tidak akan gunung lari dikejar.”

“Mountains do not run when chased.” – Compare with the Arabic proverb “Dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”

      • “Hendak seribu daya, tak hendak seribu dalih.”

“Desire has a thousand efforts, lack of desire a thousand excuses.”

      • “Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, manusia mati meninggalkan nama.”

“A tiger leaves its stripes in death, a man leaves behind his name.” – The importance of honor and reputation.

      • “Bagai pinang dibelah dua.”

“Like a betel-nut cleft in two.” – An excellent match.

      • “Bagai enau di dalam belukar, melepaskan pucuk masing-masing.”

“Like sugar-palms in the bush, each one sprouting as it can.” – Dogged persistence, selfish opportunism.

      • “Pijak semut tak mati.”

“An ant does not die underfoot.” – Not always true of course, but you gotta hand it to those ants.

      • “Dimana bumi dipijak disitu langit dijunjung.”

“Wheresoever the earth is trod, the sky remains aloft.” – Every place has its own customs that ought to be respected.

      • “Alang-alang menyeluk pekasam biar ke pangkal lengan.”

“If you’re gonna reach into the pickle jar, might as well put your whole arm in.” – It isn’t easy to keep a consistent tone to the translations.  English proverbs mostly have the formal quality of Malay ones but English idoms and expressions are more vernacular. I love this one because it’s so much more pungent in Malay – the “pickles” here are fermented fish.

Proverbs will be added to this list from time to time.  Follow me on Twitter for updates as they happen.  Send me your favorites: Check out the proverbial wisdom I grew up with. Maybe anda berminat with a little humor dwibahasa?

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  1. The Malay proverbs compilation is great – especially if one can’t get to see the old Maxwell or Hose compilations. I have been trying (for no particular reason!) to find one that has a similar meaning to one of my favourites in English : “Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick”. Any ideas? Thanks.

  2. Certainly not a common expression! After asking around, the best suggestion I got was it refers to the spitting of the sirih juice. When you chew sirih with betel and lime, you spit when you are done. So the implication is of the unpleasantness left behind after a pleasurable experience is finished. If you could quote it being used in context I might be able to find out more.

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