Peribahasa Melayu (A-G) | Malay Proverbs- English translation

I have been intrigued by the deep meaning of the proverbs in the Malay language. Finally, I decided to get down to translate some of the proverbs into English language. The translation first contains the literal translation of the proverb itself in English (labelled as English translation). You may find the English grammar to be a little off in some of the translation. This is because I want to keep closely the order of the phrase that is being used.

The translation is done to the best of my ability from my understanding of the brief meaning that is being explained in Malay. My purpose of doing this translation is to enable the English speaking world to understand our proverbs, the actual phrases used and the meaning of the phrases. I have selected mostly lesser known proverbs for translation. The proverbs would be arranged in alphabetical order and in this article, we would cover proverbs beginning from the alphabets A to G.


Above: My YouTube video of selected proverbs

Ada udang di sebalik batu
English translation: A prawn is (hidden) behind the stone.
Meaning: There is hidden agenda or motive. When we look at the stone, we could not see anything but a prawn is actually hidden behind it.

Air beriak tanda tak dalam.
English translation: Rippling water signifies that it is not deep
Meaning: Many who are talking are usually not knowledgeable.

Air dicincang takkan putus
English translation: Water when slashed will not break

Meaning: Conflict and arguments between siblings would not last long. In olden times, family ties were very much valued and an unbreakable bond would usually be form amongst siblings who played, ate and slept together.  No matter how bad the misunderstanding or arguments got, usually siblings would be back together.

Air diminum terasa duri, nasi dimakan terasa sekam
English translation: Water when drank felt like thorns, rice when eaten felt like husk.
Meaning: Very sad until there is no appetite to eat or drink.

Air susu dibalas dengan air tuba
English translation: Milk being repaid with tuba water
Meaning: Kindness is being replayed by evil. Note: Tuba is a kind of plant where the juice is poisonous. The juice is used in olden times to poison fishes in ponds or rivers.  Imagine how it feels when we give goodness but receive back poison in return.

Ambil pati, buangkan ampas
English translation: Take the gist, throw out the waste.
Meaning: Apply the good points, discard the bad points. In life there would be both good and bad, including horrible experiences. We take the good stuff and learn from them. As for the bad stuff, throw it out as there’s no point of holding on to it.

Bagai ayam disambar helang
English translation: Like chicken being carried away by the eagle
Meaning: Someone who disappeared suddenly without a trace.

Bagai bulan jatuh ke riba
English translation: Like the moon that fall on one’s lap
Meaning: Obtaining something totally unexpected. Please understand that hundreds of years ago, there was no space program so no one ever got to the moon yet. There was no internet, TV or smartphone so gazing at the moon and stars were how most people then spend their time. The moon in the sky become the subject of many poetic expressions and love stories across all cultures in the world.

Bagai itik pulang petang
English translation: Like ducks returning in the evening
Meaning: Ducks love to go wandering to the waterways. When it is evening, it is time for them to return. One can imagine the relunctance of the ducks to leave their favourite place. They would walk at a very slow and agonising pace, just like a person would if he/she is not excited about the place they are heading.

Bagai kucing lepas senja
English translation: Like a cat after dusk
Meaning: The person is very hard to find. Cats tend to go out to wonder out and going completely missing at night. They would be back when they want to. It is hard to find them when we go out looking for them.

Bagai isi dengan kuku
English translation: Like flesh with nails
Meaning: A close friendship between two persons who are inseparable, like the nails and the flesh beneath it.

Bagai kucing kehilangan anak
English translation: Like a cat who lost her kittens.
Meaning: A person who gone out of his/her mind. When the mother cats are searching for her kittens, she are usually seen to be restless, worried and meowing very loudly. She would refuse to eat and spend her time going around making loud distressing meows till she is able to find her kittens. When a human loses his/her mind, the behaviour is seen to be similar.

Bagai menghitung bulu kambing
English translation: Like counting the hairs from the body of goat

Meaning: Doing tedious and redundant work which is totally unnecessary and adds no value. Counting the hairs on an animal is an example. Not the mention for sure the animal would not sit still to let us count its hair.

Bakar tak berapi
English translation: Burning without fire
Meaning: Usually implies having a crush on someone without the other person knowing, ie not a two way relationship. If there is a fire it is something obvious but if there is no fire, no one knows.

Batu api
English translation: Flintstone or a stone used to start a fire
Meaning: When we call a person ‘batu api’ it means we are saying the person like to instigate and gossip to start discord and fights between two parties.

Biar putih tulang jangan putih mata
English translation: Let bones be white but not eyes.
Meaning: It is better to die than to surrender. When a person dies in a battlefield, eventually the body would decompose and only the bone, in white colour remains. In ancient times, it is considered as an honor to keep on fighting without surrendering to the enemy.

Burung terbang dipipiskan lada
English translation: A bird flying, busy preparing chilis
Meaning: Waiting to celebrate a success that has not yet come. In the proverb, the bird is still flying freely but one already is preparing the spices in anticipating to cook the bird. But how sure is the person the bird can be caught in the first place?

Cacing hendak menjadi naga
English translation: A worm wishes to be a dragon
Meaning: A ‘nobody’ wishes to be somebody great. Ok ok, in this internet age, anyone could be somebody but in ancient times where there are differentiation between classes of people, it would be almost impossible for a poor villager to become a nobleman.

Cacing menelan naga
English translation: The worm swallows the dragon
Meaning: An apparently weak person is able to defeat a strong person.

Campak baju nampak kurap
English translation: Throw clothes see ringworm (skin disease)
Meaning: Own self reveals one’s embarrassing secrets or bad points (as depleted by one throwing away one’s clothing to expose the shameful surfaces on the skin).

Cerdik bagai ekor kerbau
English translation: As smart as a buffalo’s tail
Meaning: Doing things that is not beneficial and even bring to loss to oneself.

Dari telaga yang jernih, tak akan mengalir air yang keruh
English translation: From a well with clear water, murky water would not flow out of it.
Meaning: If one is really a noble, coarse language and bad behaviour would not be born

Daripada cempedak baiklah nangka, daripada tidak baiklah ada
English translation: Rather than cempedak, nangka is acceptable. Rather than nothing, better have something.
Meaning: Even though there is a little, it is better than none. Cempedak and nangka are both local fruits where one is preferred than the other.

Di luar merah di dalam pahit
English translation: Outside is red, inside is bitter

Meaning: Outwardly one appeared to be good or born from a good family but the inner thoughts are no good.

Di lurah maka hendak angin, di bukit maka hendak air
English translation: At the creek…. wish for the wind, in the hill (peak) wish for water.
Meaning: Wishing for something not right at its place. We know that if we want to have the wind, then we need to climb up at the peak. And if we wish to have water, we should go to the creek. But some like to wish for something during an inappropriate time.

Di mana makan di situ berak
English translation: Where one eats, one defecates.
Meaning: Doing bad deeds at a place where people are earning a living. Defecate (berak) represents a bad action, and eating (makan) represents livelihood.

Dicocok orang hidungnya
English translation: Pierced by someone his nose
Meaning: A person just obey at instruction of someone. Similar to a water buffalo where a ring is pierced at its nose and it is forced to follow the instruction and direction where the owner takes it.

Dimakan mati emak, diluah mati bapa
English translation: If swallow…. mother dies, if spit out…. father dies.
Meaning: One is caught in a very difficult situation.  This means regardless of the choices one makes, the result would be harmful to something or someone dear to one’s heart. In this proverb, the father and mother are used to signify something precious to one’s heart.

Embun di hujung rumput
English translation: Dew at the edge of the grass
Meaning: Something that would not last as a dew on the edge of a blade of grass will disappear once the sun rises.

Enggan seribu daya, mahu sepatah kata
English translation: If unwilling, there would be a thousand efforts/excuses. If willing, just one word would suffice.
Meaning: This means if someone do not like or fancy something, there would be a million excuses not to do it. But if one really wanted something, they would really go for it.

Gagak bersuara murai
English translation: A crow (gagak) sounded like a magpie (murai)
Meaning: Outwardly the person looks ugly but has a good heart and a beautiful voice.

Gajah ditelan ular lidi
English translation: Elephant swallowed by a small snake (ular lidi is a small snake).
Meaning: The strong gets defeated by the weak even though it had seemed impossible.

Gajah bergajah-gajah, pelanduk mati tersepit
English translation: Elephants fighting away, the deers die being caught in between.
Meaning: If kings are fighting or in conflict, the common people would suffer/get harmed/die.

Gali lubang tutup lubang
English translation: Dig hole close hole
Meaning: Borrowing money to repay debts.

Garuda diburu layang-layang yang dapat
English translation: Hunt for a Garuda (heavenly bird) but get a sparrow instead
Meaning: The outcome is far from what one had wished for

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