The original Latin rendition of the phrase would be:

Si ventus non est, remiga!

My question is what's the French version of this proverb? What would the exact wording of it be in French? All I could come up with was this:

S'il n'y a pas de vent, ramez !

But I'm not one hundred percent sure if that's exactly what you would say in French since Google returns only one instance where a phrase with the exact same wording is used. So, it's either me who is wrong or this phrase is not very popular in French culture.

  • Not sure but here are a couple of adages that overlap in terms of usage: « aide-toi, le ciel t-aidera » ; « aux grands maux, les grands remèdes »
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jun 22 '18 at 5:13
  • Thank you for you suggestions. But do you think the phrase that I came up with is how one would generally say it in French?
    – user69786
    Jun 22 '18 at 6:15
  • 1
    It's a valid word-for-word translation, but as you know that has nothing to do with whether one would generally say something. I think the naturalness of that phrase is pretty good, but I would say that if you're imitating French proverb style, it would be probably not be imperative. « Quand il n'y pas de vent, il faut ramer » might be better. Or « Sans vent, il faut ramer »
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jun 23 '18 at 14:24
  • Shouldn't there be an a between n'y and pas in « Quand il n'y pas de vent, il faut ramer »?
    – user69786
    Jun 23 '18 at 19:57
  • 1
    Good catch, that was a typo. Same with my lack of "one" before "foot" in the comment below :p
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jun 24 '18 at 17:40

The two main types of translation, word-for-word and thought-for-thought, give different answers.

As far as a thought-for-thought translation, such that the French speaker and the Latin speaker would have the same reaction to the utterance, I think the closest adage is:

Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera.
God helps those who help themselves.

For a word-for-word translation, what you chose makes sense and would certainly be understood:

S'il n'y a pas de vent, ramez !

But there's a middle ground: a literal translation — often used to add colour to a text, to let the French reader feel they're learning something about Latin and about Roman culture — that also takes into account the conventions of adage in French.

Taking a look at one or two samples to confirm my suspicions, I would say that those conventions don't favour the imperative. They're often direct generalizations like Chaque chose vaut son prix, statements of value like Il vaut mieux plier que rompre, equivalences like Vouloir c'est pouvoir, or condition → consequence like Quand on n'a pas ce que l'on aime, il faut aimer ce que l'on a.

Given those observations, here are some some of the many options that might be more likely:

Quand il n'y a pas de vent, il faut ramer.

Sans vent, on rame.

Qui manque de vent doit ramer.

Edit: user168676, noting the tendency to omit articles in proverbs (perhaps because many predate the stage where articles are necessary?), suggests these as well, which I find also have very idiomatic transformations of the syntax:

Navire sans vent repart à la rame.

Navire sans vent continue à la rame.

Of course, since there isn't such a proverb in French, you still won't find examples if you search, but at least the genre will be recognized more easily.

At least, so say I. Native speakers are invited to correct me!

  • Not in answer to your last comment. In my correction of "Qui manque du vent doit ramer" it has been made precise that the syntax is wrong, but whoever made the verification overlooked that: may be you can identify the following as not correct : "Les enfants manquent du argent ; Les pauvres manquent du pain ; Le vieillard manque de la force;". That is not at all said in French; instead of respectively, "du", "du", and "de la" you must have "d'", "de" and "de". Probably I shouldn't have made that correction as on top of that error of syntax,
    – LPH
    Aug 27 '18 at 18:09
  • (continued) the form you used is defective on the count of a point semantics, if I identify the problem rightly, --I wouldn't say style-- and that is the reason I dismissed it altogether; you might contend my point of view and want to retain your form but do not without making the little change I explain above, there is no arguing about that error. The person who made the verification missed totally my point for eliminating your form. I got rid of it because in sayings in french the pronoun "qui" when used as a first word refers to persons, and therefore it is somewhat queer to have to think
    – LPH
    Aug 27 '18 at 18:10
  • (continued) about somebody who is deprived of wind at first and only as you read or hear the remainder to have to start to ask yourself what it is all about: after all "qui" might be in a one place rowing boat for instance; that makes of the saying something of a riddle, it's not put directly enough. With the word "ship" in front the deduction is easy. That's all!
    – LPH
    Aug 27 '18 at 18:11
  • @user168676 C'est moi qui ai vérifié la correction, donc j'apprécie que tu me l'expliques :) Je crois avoir compris d'où vient la difficulté : même si en français comme en latin on doit lire jusqu'à la fin de la phrase avant de savoir pourquoi on fait référence au vent, l'insinuation qu'une personne pourrait en avoir ou manquer est un peu plus étrange que l'affirmation qu' « il y en a » ou pas ; donc tu l'as contextualisé un peu. Dans ce cas, une question : Penses-tu qu'il y a un moyen de garden cette version qui commence par « qui », qui me semble assez idiomatique comme forme proverbiale ?
    – Luke Sawczak
    Aug 27 '18 at 18:31
  • Il serait bon d'en avoir une telle, en tant que personne à qui incombe de juger parmi plusieurs ou peut-être à qui incombe d'offrir un choix de possibilités que d'autres puissent comparer, mais je crois qu'il n'y a rien de mieux pour la culture en général que de n'en avoir qu'une, c'est à dire que tous mérites de ces diverses possibilités finalement pesés il vaudrait mieux n'en retenirr qu'une (il y en a déjà beaucoup). Non, je n'ai rien trouvé mais il n'est pas dit qu'il n'y ait pas une forme, qui sait, même avec des qualités supérieures à toutes celles qui ont été construites.
    – LPH
    Aug 27 '18 at 19:16

This phrase is not very popular in French culture.

Totally not in use. As Luke Sawczak said, the sentence whose meaning is closest is:

« aide-toi, le ciel t-aidera »

which roughly means, today, in the maritime context of the Latin quotation (if we put the religious side aside):

If you want to move forward and there is no wind, row and you will go forward.

  • Can't you see that « aide-toi, le ciel t-aidera » is a totally different phrase? I'm talking about the existence of the proverb "If there is no wind, row" in French. How exactly do you say that in French? Was my wording in the question correct?
    – user69786
    Jun 22 '18 at 22:13
  • I answerded : "Totally not in use" Jun 23 '18 at 13:01
  • 3
    @user69786 "Can't you see" → no, in fact, it's not obvious that a literal translation is the equivalent of a proverb. For example, "to have foot in the grave" in English = sentir le sapin ("smell like fir trees") in French. And that's a relatively lucky time when there is an equivalent...
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jun 23 '18 at 14:20
  • @user69786 I believe you have a point (not to be retained as equivalent); in "Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera." there is no question of being motivated by a loss; it applies generally to all endeavours a person might take to, irrespectively of whatever point we consider in the course of that person's commitment to one; it means "All efforts yield a return."; on the other hand "When no wind, row." is something else: it says "In all circumstances you have to make the best of what's at hand." It reminds me an adage, similar albeit not at all literary: "When life gives you a lemon, make lemon juice."
    – LPH
    Aug 30 '18 at 14:48

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