Languages around the world have proverbs about how good can be discovered in, or result from, negative situations. In English we might say “Every cloud has a silver lining,” “April showers bring May flowers,” or “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” How are these ideas expressed in other languages?
French has a rain proverb too – “After the rain, the good weather” – as well as one that is quite clear about the potential value of difficulty: “Unhappiness is good for something.” German goes with “If the day wasn’t your friend, then it was your teacher.”
In Spanish it’s not the rains but the days of the week that remind people that things will improve: “Every Tuesday has its Sunday.” I’m not sure what’s wrong with Tuesday – perhaps you are tired from Monday but still have a long week ahead?
Then there is the Chinese “Sai Weng lost his horse,” which appears in Japanese as “Life is like Sai’s horse.” These refer to a classic Chinese story about how to evaluate positive versus negative events. Sai’s horse runs away, which appears to be a misfortune. But it returns, bringing along another beautiful horse. His son tries to ride it and falls off, breaking his leg, but when the army comes to draft him into a war, he cannot go because of his injury. According to Daniel Crump Buchanan, author of “Japanese Proverbs and Sayings,” the moral is “An evil sometimes turns out to be a blessing in disguise.”
Mandarin teacher Qui Giu Su notes, however, that the saying has another interpretation: “With what at first appears to be good luck can come misfortune.” It is best, in other words, not to get too excited about good or ill circumstances, but to ride them out, for they will change.
The Yoruba version of our proverbial lemons is bitter leaf, Vernonia amygdalina, which features in the saying, “The same rain that fell on the bitter leaf also fell on the sugarcane.” The same situation can produce both bad things and good – it depends on how a person reacts to it.
“Turn your face to the sun and shadows fall behind you” is a version of “Look on the bright side” that appears in Maori as well as several African languages. Mongolian advises that sometimes, one just has to endure tribulations as best one can: “Times are not always the same; the grass is not always greener.” Occasionally when you travel with your sheep in search of better grass, you just don’t find any. But, there’s hope here too – sometimes it is greener; better days will return.
The proverb that works best in these physically distanced coronavirus times? In Mongolian, it’s “Man’s happiness lies in vacant steppes.”