Idiom? I thought you said something else...
July 25, 2012 9:15 PM   Subscribe

There must be a way to say 'big fish in a small pond' in languages other than English... right?

I'm curious about languages, though I don't have the time or interest in studying them more thoroughly. The aforementioned question came up last night during a conversation, and it made me wonder how they translated idioms like 'big fish in a small pond'. There are, of course, other idioms in other languages that mean something simiiar, and you can always translate it literally and explain the phrase in a footnote...

The question here, then, is how would you translate 'big fish in a small pond' into another language? Any language is fine, but elaborate on the literal meaning, any connotations, etc. Literally, how would you explain the concept in, say, Spanish, French, Latin, etc.?
posted by chrisinseoul to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's no Danish idiom for it; I would just say "stor fisk i en lille sø".
posted by WalkingAround at 9:24 PM on July 25, 2012

Here is a discussion amongst some French speakers about this phrase. People in the thread suggest the equivalent French expressions "une gloire locale" (a local celebrity), "des coqs de village" (the village cocks), and "briller dans un petit groupe" (one who shines in a small group).
posted by rongorongo at 2:19 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also "des caïds de bas étage" - the lords of the lower floor. Maybe that is the nicest.
posted by rongorongo at 2:39 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

In Dutch, you might hear something like "wereldberoemd in Appelscha" (= world famous in [small village], akin to earlier US/UK use of "big in Japan"), though it's not an official saying. I've also seen literal translation from the English (grote vis in een kleine vijver), but this is not a traditional Dutch expression. As these sightings were exclusively in business/coaching type documents, I attribute the phrase to lazy translators.
posted by likeso at 3:15 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've also seen literal translation from the English (grote vis in een kleine vijver), but this is not a traditional Dutch expression.

posted by MartinWisse at 3:38 AM on July 26, 2012

Well, not according to any Dutch folks/organizations I know - but maybe it is now (see lazy translators). ;p
posted by likeso at 3:43 AM on July 26, 2012

There are some common Chinese sayings that come close, but none match the connotations of "big fish in a small pond" exactly.

鹤立鸡群 (Hèlìjīqún) - crane among chickens
Refers to someone who stands out -- accomplished, capable, etc

矮子里的长子 (Ǎizi lǐ de cháng zi) - giant among dwarfs
Best out of a bad bunch -- slightly derogatory

池中無魚蝦自大 (Chí zhōng wú yú xiā zì dà) - in a pond without fish, the shrimp are arrogant

山中无老虎猴子称大王 (Shānzhōng wú lǎohǔ hóuzi chēng dàwáng) - when the tiger is away, the monkey is king of the mountain

宁做鸡头不做凤尾 (Níng zuò jī tóu bù zuò fèng wěi) - Better the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix
posted by twisted mister at 3:58 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Well, if you're already in Korea, you might've heard of this, but the Korean phrase that fits that bill would would be: 우물안개구리/Umul an gaeguri (Frog in a well.) Basically, it just means like a frog in a well, a person who does not think of a world bigger than or outside of where they are and hyow small they are compared to it.

There are similar phrases of "know your place" variety, but the above is pretty much in line with how "big fish in a small pond" in used in English. The others tend to be more of a comment on a person's own limitations or the on the ill-effects of not being self-aware of these limits as opposed to just a commentary on the self-awareness in general.

뱁새가 황새 따라가다 가랭이가 찢어진다/Baebsae hwangsae ddaragadah gahraengi gah jjijuhjindah (Following a crane, the crow tit [a small Korean bird] tears Sorry, I was trying to delicately translate "garaengi," which is a colloquial phrase where the closest I English word I can think of is crotch, but anyway. This phrase is a mix of "Keeping up with the Johnsons" and "know your place." A small crow tit with its tiny leg span trying to keep up with a crane and its legspan can only bring tears.

뛰는놈 위 나는놈/Ddwineun nom wi nahneun nom (Above the guy running is the guy flying). Probably familiar if you've been listening to that Psy song featured as an FPP, since that's the lyric to the bridge of "Gangnam style," but it's also a common Korean saying. Basically meaning there's always going to be someone better than you. A guy running probably thinks he's doing pretty well and going really fast running along, but compared to a guy that can fly, he's nothing.

Similar to the Chinese one above about the tiger and monkey, the Korean variation is:
호랑이 없는 골에 토끼가 왕 노릇 한다/Horangi uhbneun golae tokki gah wang noreut handah (In a mountain with no tiger, the rabbit plays king). But that phrase is more used similar to the English "When the cat is away, the mice come out to play." Meaning either the correct people aren't in a position of authority or without correct authority, there are people that take advantage of the situation.
posted by kkokkodalk at 6:24 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Japanese has "frog in a well" too (i no naka no kaeru). The full expression is "a frog in a well knows nothing of the sea." It's more about ignorance than irrelevance, though, I guess. It's a simplified version of a Zhuangzi line (井鼃不可以語於海者拘於虛也), which explains why both Korean and Japanese have it: shared cultural heritage. (I was under the impression that it was used in China, too, but maybe not.)
posted by No-sword at 8:20 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, Chinese has the "frog in a well" saying, too: 井底之蛙 (jǐngdǐzhīwā). I agree that it refers to ignorance of the wider world -- more like Plato's cave allegory than the "big fish in a small pond" idiom.
posted by twisted mister at 8:45 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Previously I wrote: There's no Danish idiom for it; I would just say "stor fisk i en lille sø".

On second thought, there actually is a Danish saying expressing the notion of "big fish in a small pond": I de blindes land er den enøjede konge. (In English: "In the land of the blind, the one with one eye is king.")
posted by WalkingAround at 10:10 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wonderful. Keep 'em coming!
posted by chrisinseoul at 12:00 AM on July 27, 2012

In Spanish you can say:

"más vale ser cabeza de ratón que cola de león" -- it's better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion.
posted by drlith at 8:12 AM on July 27, 2012

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