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Primary authors: Soneath Hor, Sody Lay and Visna Sann
Others contributors: Bunreth Hor, Sinuon Mey, Navy Phim and Vathany Say

Proverbs and adages are an integral part of Khmer culture and often provide some thoughtful advice or fundamental insight into the basic truths of life. The Khmer Institute has undertaken the task of collecting and translating these words of wisdom into English for the benefit of the English-speaking public and subsequent generations of overseas Cambodians.

In translating these words of wisdom, our primary consideration was the accurate preservation of their meaning. Tone was a secondary consideration. Regrettably, we often could not translate the poetic devices (the rhymes, rhythm, alliteration, assonance and consonance) that give these proverbs and adages their brilliance. For instance, has been translated “Associating with sages will bring you contentment and a life devoid of suffering.” This saying is compelling not simply because of its prudent advice, but because of the skillful manner in which the author expresses it. A phonetic transliteration shows the use of various poetic devices: kub kit bon-dit   sok muy che-vit ot tuk. In these less than ten words, we find alliteration, rhyme, consonance and a distinct metrical pattern that is broken off at the end to effectively punctuate the thought.

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The function of great knowledge is not to simply weigh down your brain, just as a woman does not wear costly jewelry simply to weigh herself down.

Regarding consumption of the food in this world, if you are not conscious of the amount you eat and eat wastefully without consideration for others, this will create conflict with relatives; when you die the fire will not be enough for a normal cremation (because relatives will not help build the funeral pyre). Overeating is poisonous because eating too much will make a stingy person of others, including relatives.
An obvious admonition against gluttony. Overindulgence will make those around you fearful that you will abuse their generosity, causing them to be hesitant about giving you anything. For example, it is a Khmer custom to offer food to friends and family who visit, but one might think twice about offering food to someone who will overindulge themselves without consideration for others (e.g., without leaving food for other people, including the host).

Do not plan to study with the desire to become a government minister, hate and loathe this quagmire that leads to poverty; you must study to become a farmer in order to have wealth in the future.
Interpretation: Be practical and do not waste your time seeking that which is unavailable to you. This is an outdated proverb based on the fact that in the past it was virtually impossible for a non-aristocrat to rise to the rank of minister; therefore, the belief was that common people should spend their time focusing on work their status permitted, such as farming.

Do not sit on a basket to raise yourself; do not be boisterous while carrying goods on your head; do not lie with your head covered waiting for good luck; do not rely upon the god of mercy, you must work hard.
In the first phrase, “sitting on a basket” is a metaphor for boasting about oneself; the second phrase admonishes a person not to be boisterous while carrying goods because when you are boisterous you risk becoming unbalanced and tipping the basket on which your goods rest; the third and forth phrases are self-explanatory.

Do not lie waiting for death or sit waiting to become rich; embarrassment of stupidity will bring knowledge, embarrassment of poverty will bring riches; knowing yourself as ignorant will make you wise; do not act as if dead before you have lived, live your life then die; associate with the learned, do not imitate those who are ignorant/evil.
The last word in this proverb (“peal”) means ignorant, immature, as well as evil. The word likely has a triple meaning because the Khmer associate ignorance and immaturity with inappropriate/evil conduct.

Do not develop the habit of being idle, wasting time that could be spent working; do not develop the habit of keeping something for later; do not develop the habit of carelessly looking down upon others, bringing a response (confrontation); do not develop the habit of not giving gifts to beggars (not expressing compassion).

Blame for error always lies with those who act; those who do nothing, what do they have to be wrong about?
Interpretation: Mistakes are an inherent part of action; only those who risk nothing and do nothing will not make mistakes. Similar to “To err is human.”

Do not rely upon the notion that those who are rich need not exert effort or those who have fallen need not push themselves up.
Interpretation: We dictate our own future and should not wait around for luck/fate to dictate it for us. Do not believe that if you are rich you no longer need to work hard or if you have fallen (literally, financially, or otherwise) that it is pointless to struggle to get back on your feet.

Do not commit evil deeds such as practicing usury; betraying your wife with a secret mistress leads to misery.

Anger begets error, injury, waste; carelessness begets destruction.
A more common expression is Dual Translation: (1) Anger begets error; anger begets injury; anger begets waste; and (2) Anger is wrong; anger is wicked; anger is wasteful.

Anger causes lack of mindfulness, leading to impairment of work, impairment of purpose; the nature of anger leads to impurity, error, waste, and injury caused by absent-mindedness.

Work hard to make a living for indolence is pointless, that way no matter your misfortunes you will have enough to eat without asking for handouts from others. If you should have merit from a previous life that brings you good fortune, hard work will enable you to rise to become a wealthy tycoon.

Prison and keys are something to which thieves gave birth; medicinal remedies are born from germs; sleep is born from feelings of sleepiness; people in the world are born from karma.
Karma is a principle in Buddhism that posits your present action dictates your future. That is, accumulating merit though good deeds will bring good fortune, accumulating sin through evil deeds will bring misfortune. Hence, your birth as a human being and the condition you are born into, whether good or bad, are determined by your karma (the merit/sin you have accumulated from past lives).

Control your temper through concentration and patience; control everyday evil/crimes through rules/authority; those who control their hearts to reject anger deserve the greatest praise of all.
Interestingly, “tosa” means anger, while a similar word “tos” refers to criminal guilt.

Controlling yourself to reject feelings of love involving worldly lust and desires is like using cotton thread to tie up an elephant, so exceedingly difficult that you should try to avoid it beforehand.
Interpretation: Try to avoid falling into forbidden passion as it will be difficult to control yourself once you do. Worldly lust and desires can incite many evils, such as violence and murder.

Associating with evil people will bring you suffering.

Associating with sages will bring you contentment and a life devoid of suffering.

Seeing a tiger sleep, you assume the tiger is dead; seeing a tiger crouch, you assume the tiger is kowtowing.
Interpretation: Things are not necessarily as you may perceive them to be. An adage used to admonish someone for their misconceptions.

Seeing them go, do not fail to join them; seeing them return with goods, do not then go.
Interpretation: If you do not join something at the outset when invited to do so, do not try to do so later only after you have witnessed the success of others.

Seeing that the wood is rotten, do not yet sit down. or (do not yet set your behind on it).
Literally, the proverb advises individuals to observe wood that is rotten for insects/maggots before sitting down on it. Metaphorically, it refers to inspecting things that look suspicious.

Seeing the elephant defecate, do not strive to defecate like the elephant.
Interpretation: Do not strive to do something beyond your capability.

Seeing something from afar, do not yet conjecture that it is good or bad, until you see for certain that it is black or white can you make a judgment; if you accept and act according to unsupported speculations, you will experience unhappiness due to your mistakes.
Interpretation: Do not prejudge or act based on unconfirmed rumors or conjectures; it will only cause you grief.

Seeing the bark, you think it is the heartwood of the tree; you understand the enemy as being your friend; the ignorant you mistake for sages; you mistake feces for flowers.
admonishment for gross misconstruction/misinterpretation of a situation

Bumble bees give up on stems without flowers; wild animals give up on forests that are on fire; birds give up on trees without edible fruit; thieves who elude capture give up and throw away their past.
Dual Interpretation: The adage is comparing a thief’s past to stems without flowers or trees without fruit, i.e., useless, valueless; but also, to continue to elude capture, thieves must literally “throw away” or hide their past from other people.

Hungry, do not yet eat; sleepy, do not yet sleep.
Phrase from a Cambodian folklore warning the protagonist to control his desires for fear that his food has been poisoned or that he should be killed in his sleep. Used to warn others to be cautious and stay alert.

When extremely hungry, anything is tasty; when extremely in love, anything is good. or (the amount eaten depends upon the person’s hunger, the amount of wickedness depends upon the person’s nature).

You do not fear the thorny plant, yet you fear the tiger.
Phrase from a Khmer story about a crippled man and a blind man. As they walk through the forest, rather than fearing the thorny plants in his path, the blind man fears running into a tiger. This prompts the crippled man who is riding on his shoulders to scold him for his paranoia. Possible Interpretation: Worry about the immediate dangers rather than one that is still in the abstract.

The gourd sinks, broken pieces float.
Gourds usually float and broken pieces (of plates or bowls) usually sink, but there are times when the opposite is true. This adage is used to refer to situations where the unusual occurs. For instance, unusual changes in social structure or personal status, such as peasants ascending to power and aristocrats toiling in poverty. It is also a reminder that there is always a chance that the unlikely will happen.

Tending the water buffalo, ride the water buffalo; tending the cow, ride the cow.
Interpretation: Make use of objects at your disposal to make your job easier. Why walk when you can ride the animals you are tending?

Tending feelings is truly too difficult, like tending the clouds.

Tend cows and buffalos with authority; tend kindness with patience.

Tend the generous nature by getting rid of possessions without hesitation.

Obsession with your family will cause you to stray from the law.
reference to nepotism

Obsession with gold and silver damages your status.

Obsession with men jeopardizes your virginity.

Obsession with women is fuel for suffering.

Obsession with gambling leads you to ruins.

Obsession with alcohol damages your memory.

Dual Translation: (1) Obsession with words of praise is stupid; and (2) Obsession with words of praise will lead others to consider you stupid.

Obsession with words of deprecation kills off ideas.
reference to unconstructive criticism

Obsession with gaining power causes a person to stink up the entire world while still alive.

Obsession with a belief limits your ideas.
admonition against close-mindedness

Physical death is better than the death of your reputation (also “family’s reputation”).

Running out of ideas will put you in the dark until death.
admonition against lack of mindfulness

Dead even while living, foul-smelling even while fresh.
reference to a useless person

Losing a limb is better than losing your ability to communicate.

Losing yourself over a woman will bring misfortune for a lifetime.

Losing yourself over a man will ruin your reputation for a lifetime.

Tragedy as a result of ones own words, like a komplea fish (a type of fish that comes up to the surface to breath and thereby becomes easy prey for people to capture).
reference to causing ones own destruction through imprudent words

Tragedy as a result of ones own defecation, like a kvaek (a type of bird that hunters find by seeking out its defecation).
reference to causing ones own destruction through immoral action