Professor's Collection Of 9,000 Books Of Proverbs Has New Home At UVM Library

Nov 22, 2019

Wolfgang Mieder, a professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont, has a private collection of 9,000 books of proverbs from all over the world. Amassed over decades, his collection stretches more than the length of three football fields. It's now housed at UVM's Billings Library, but before that? He was in danger of losing the vast majority because he was running out of space in his Williston home.

Mieder told VPR he and his wife had even built shelving onto their home to accommodate the large book collection.

"Books were lying on top of each other and behind each other," he said, "so this idea of the University of Vermont establishing the International Proverb Library as a research center is so unique — not because of me — but it is so unique that it went around the scholarly world."

But what if that space hadn't been available at Billings? Mieder said he had spoken with other libraries, but noted there really wasn't enough space for all those books. He said, worst case, his collection would have been broken up and "destroyed" over time.

"It would have been a shame, I think, because this is a collection that is truly unique," Mieder said. "I don't care what library you go to in the world, including the Library of Congress — you're not going to find this."

Wolfgang Mieder has acquired books of proverbs in more than 20 different languages, including Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese and Spanish among them, as well as some very old English proverbs, like this collection dated back to 1768.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

What is a proverb?

Mieder is one of the world's leading proverb scholars, and he publishes an annual critique through UVM on the subject called Proverbium.

"A good working definition would be that a proverb is a concise statement of an apparent truth which has currency," Mieder explained. "And the word apparent is important because not every proverb is necessarily always true. After all, we have these contradictory proverbs, like 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' and 'out of sight, out of mind.'

"But it is important proverbs are short — the average length is about seven words — and it has to gain some currency among people."

Different cultures, similar proverbs

"Many proverbs are dealing with such basic human matters, like love and understanding and friendship — of course, also hate — compassion," Mieder said. "So there's no reason why proverbs that are quite similar, if not identical, shouldn't be created in different cultures."

"What becomes interesting is that every culture has of course its indigenous, its own proverbs," he continued, "and those are the ones that give translators a tremendously difficult time. Because from culture to culture, proverbs might want to say the same thing but they use different metaphors."

"This is the dirty stuff," Mieder said. Slang, too, is among his proverb collection.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

As an example, Mieder noted the popular English proverb 'the early bird catches the worm' — but a similar-meaning proverb in German translates to 'the morning hour has gold in its mouth.'

Mieder said those different metaphors make translating on the fly tricky. That's why, Mieder said, United Nations translators were known to keep Russian proverbs nearby to quickly consult their meaning when translating Nikita Khrushchev.

In general, Mieder said he would like more focus in today's world on ways people are similar.

"The more you study them," Mieder said of proverbs, "the more you realize that we human beings are really much more alike than different." 

Picking some favorites

Mieder said an American proverb he particularly likes is "different strokes for different folks," which he traces back to the 1940s.

"That is a proverb that almost had to have grown on American soil," Mieder said. "You need a democratic viewpoint to come up with 'different strokes for different folks.'"

Two other proverbs he said he shares with students are "making a way out of no way," and also what's known as the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"I tell the students, 'You know, it might sound primitive but if you could attempt to live your life maybe by those three little tidbits, might not be a bad idea,'" he said.

Wolfgang Mieder gently replaces a book of German proverbs published in 1545 on his shelf of "treasures," a collection of old and rare books.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR