• Vol. 09
  • Chapter 02
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A Horse is a Horse is a Horse

One of my favorite activities in high school, together with my best friend who was also Bulgarian, was coming up with literal translations of Bulgarian proverbs into English, which we were both still learning at the time. One that always made us laugh was, “The horse went into the river.” Not to be confused with the one about how you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink, the Bulgarian saying means something along the lines of, “Everything has gone to hell.” The other expression that we loved translating, then throwing around and giggling, was inspired by an idiomatic criticism, which my mom occasionally, but always lovingly, aimed at me: “Wind is blowing at you on a white horse.” Meaning, you—or in this case, I—didn’t have a care in the world. (Not to be confused with the English “high horse” that people are constantly being told to get off of.)

With time, as my English improved and my head and mouth filled with more and more idioms, I learned other expressions that had to do with horses: “hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth”; “beating a dead horse”; “putting the horse before the cart”; or “not looking a gift horse in the mouth.” This last proverb also exists in Bulgarian, and I especially like the way it sounds in German, because it rhymes: “Einem geschenkten Gaul schaut man nicht ins Maul.”

None of these sayings have to do with actual horses, of course. They have to do with life, and the horses are just stand-ins, like holograms, for how we (are supposed to) deal with it: when making use of opportunities, handling displays of arrogance, deciding on reliability and trust, showing restraint and knowing when to stop, doing things in the right order, graciously responding when we’re given something, even if that something isn’t perfect.


A Horse is a Horse is a Horse

These are all things that my high school best friend and I have grappled with over the past two and a half decades, as we’ve entered adulthood and approached middle age. These days, she lives in Washington DC and I live in Sofia. By now, we both speak English pretty much fluently. But whenever we talk, she always makes an effort to speak entirely in Bulgarian and diligently translates even the things for which the Bulgarian words might not exist, even when describing experiences that seem difficult to put into words in any language. I’m much lazier and often let English phrases or expressions slip into my stories and rants. The other day, we were chatting on the phone, and as we were saying goodbye, I told her I missed her and was really hoping she’d make it to Bulgaria over the summer. When she replied, for a moment I couldn’t quite figure out what her response meant. But then I translated it in my head, and suddenly, once they were put into English, her Bulgarian words made perfect sense: Wild horses, she’d said, couldn't keep me away.