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In the movie Spectre, M claims that the French have a saying: "it is the fate of glass to break."

I wanted to learn the original French, and its meaning. I found this:

« Tant va la cruche à l'eau qu'à la fin elle se casse ». Literally : "The jug goes to water so many times it ends up broken". Which means that you can face a danger so many times before it gets you. -- "Gerard"

M's translation and Gerard's seem to me to have importantly different senses. Now I'm curious to know what is the true sense of the French saying.

I read M's version as a nod to entropy: on a long-enough timeline, all of Man's creations will end. Once a thing has been assembled or crafted, the only transition that it can possibly undergo is its dissolution. In the context of Spectre, this sense is apropos: M wants to reassure his agents that their department is being shuttered not because they have failed, but because they have continued to succeed long enough to have outlived their usefulness. It's the kind of message that a dignified leader would deliver to his crew as the ship goes down: this is the finish line, not the grave.

I read Gerard's translation as much less positive. "The jug goes to water so many times it ends up broken" suggests that everything wears out with use, everything can take only so much stress before it cracks, everything breaks if it is used too much. In the context of the movie, it almost sounds like M is blaming his agents for running out of stamina, for losing a contest of endurance with their opponents.

Can anyone shed some light on this? What do the French mean when they say this? Is either of the interpretations I've presented closer than the other?

Thanks. 8)

P.S. I apologize if I've tagged this badly. My French is pretty rusty, and I didn't learn much in the way of meta-linguistic vocabulary.

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    I love a good translation question with some subtle nuance. :) I think context is responsible for a lot of the perceived difference here, since the semantics seem very similar to me. After all, "The jug goes to the water so often that in the end it breaks" (literal translation... slightly different from "ends up") doesn't inherently convey a sense of failure rather than completion, nor does "It is the fate of the glass to break" inherently convey a sense of satisfied end of service rather than, say, doom! – Luke Sawczak Feb 27 '17 at 6:57
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    However, I don't know exactly what connotation the French original has, so I won't offer a whole answer. Frank's reading, if correct, would illustrate the surprising nature of adages to mean quite a different thing because of which element implicitly receives the focus. (It also seems to me that the idea of repeatedly making a misstep would support the "ends up broken" rendering better than the "fate" one.) – Luke Sawczak Feb 27 '17 at 6:59
  • I wonder what the French original is exactly. It ain't that jug aphorism. There is no jug going to water. Here, it means the jug is being dipped into the water (to be filled). – Lambie Feb 27 '17 at 17:32
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    Tant va la cruche à l'eau qu'à la fin elle se casse is the correct French version, or rather, the most mainstream one, as there have been a few variations since the 12th century, and the one we are most familiar with since we are kids. It is indeed about a jug "going to water" "going to water" is still understandable, but feels very old. The story with "fate" is too far off the original meaning, IMHO, which jlliagre seems to agree with. – Frank Feb 27 '17 at 22:37
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    This link doesn’t address the meaning of the French expression, but it could provide an even more positive interpretation of “The fate of glass…”,ie, “a [fragile] object that is not broken has not yet acquired completion in the sense that its fragility remains a disposition, not a fait accompli.” So maybe being broken is not just glass's fate, but its desired goal (perhaps in hopes of experiencing Kintsugi. – Papa Poule Feb 28 '17 at 17:15
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Besides the meaning you have found (Gerard's: "you can face a danger only so many times before it gets you"), that saying (which I knew as tant va la cruche à l'eau qu'elle finit par se casser) can also be understood to mean that if you persist in making the same mistakes, you end up suffering consequences for yourself. I don't think this meaning is as "entropic" or fatalistic as M's version, but rather that there is an admonition to be smart and not repeat the same mistakes over and over again, or not tempt fate too many times. "It is the fate of glass to break" seems a bit too far from the original French saying to me.

The original meaning in French is not hard to understand at all. Picture a country setting in the Middle-Ages (because the saying is attested as far back as the 12th century). People had to get water from wells or lakes, or rivers. So aller à l'eau just meant to do the chore of going to get water, and the intended first meaning was most probably that the container you used to get water, being used a lot, would surely end up breaking. I would surmise that even a couple of generations ago aller à l'eau would have been readily understood to mean go get some water. It works pretty well on a familiar language level, IMHO, a little bit like e.g., aller au charbon. I've also heard aller au bois before to mean go get some wood (for the fire). It's very colloquial and works only in some contexts (winter, the fireplace is going to need more wood), but it makes sense in those contexts.

The old age of this saying also explains why there are a few variations - but none that would be close to it is the fate of glass to break. The movie needed a sentence with more punch and the appeal to fate was probably required - but it is not in the original French saying. Incidentally, I don't know any proverb like c'est dans la nature du verre de se briser or equivalent, which would be closer to the English. I quickly checked a database of 1,500 French proverbs but didn't find anything close (it was a quick check!).

  • I can't believe I didn't select an answer for so long. Sorry! – Tom Jan 8 '18 at 18:10
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The first translation you found for tant va la cruche à l'eau qu'à la fin elle se casse can be explained.

Word for word (not meant to be correct English), this very old French proverb (Roman de Renart: Tant va pot à l'eve que brise) translates to:

So often does the jug (originally the jar) "go to the water" (i.e. is carried to the well or any water source) that it eventually breaks.

It originally means "The more you carry the jar to fill it, the greater the risk for its breaking" and more generally "Doing the same thing again and again increase the risk something wrong happen". It is however more often used to mean something like: "If someone persist again and again doing the same mistakes, he suffers the consequences."

The closest idioms in English would be:

If you play with fire, you get burned.

and

The pitcher will go to the well once too often.

Of course, as a jar is more likely to be used than to stay in a cupboard, i.e. is to be often carried to the well, it can be said its fate is to eventually break.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Gilles Feb 28 '17 at 20:50
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This would probably come up too late, but I too have been puzzled by this odd "french saying" stated in the movie. Obviously "tant va la cruche à l'eau, etc" is not the source, if I may say. The only french saying I know that matches approximatly would be : tout a une fin. "It is the fate of a glass to break" could be translated "C'est le destin d'un verre de se briser/ le destin d'un verre est de se briser" but also "Il faut qu'à la fin un verre se brise", "un verre doit [fatalement] se briser/être brisé", "un verre est destiné à se briser", "un verre finira toujours brisé/ par se briser" and there are many other translations that would be possible. "Tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse" (Musset) would lead us somewhere. Sorry for my bad english.

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