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I'm translating a Russian blog post into English and got stuck with the proverb, "Whatever a Russian does, they end up making the Kalashnikov gun." (Humorously meaning it's hard or even impossible to get past established patterns of doing things.)

Are there any similar proverbs in the English language?

I was trying to omit the reference to a particular nationality and think about other ways to get the message across, e.g. use professions or animals. The only idea I managed to come up with was "What can you expect from a hog but a grunt." But it has negative connotations that are not implied by the original.

I'd greatly appreciate if you share your thoughts on this. Thanks in advance!

P.S. Here's this bit that I'm translating:

A chunk of our budget was shelled out to buy game design documents prepared for us by two studios. The output was quite hefty. A great deal of work was done, no one's arguing. But what we got communicated a very different idea. Maybe even a good one, yet different. This proverb best describes the situation, “Whatever a Russian does, they end up making the Kalashnikov gun.” It was evident that people are used to and like doing things in a familiar way, based on their established practices for GDDs and without getting off the beaten track.

Source: habr.com/ru/company/uteam/blog/447310

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    Honestly, I think this phrase is clear enough you could leave it in for flavor if you like (although leaving out the nationality is reasonable). – Azor Ahai Apr 24 at 18:49
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    I don't like the idea of a translator omitting things. – Mazura Apr 24 at 20:52
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    Could you share the original? I asked my friend (a Russian English translator) and she said she never heard this proverb in Russian, so we are curious about the original. – findusl Apr 25 at 7:40
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    I don't know a word of Russian, but I have heard "wherever the Russians go, they make Kalashnikovs". This was from the cold war days when I was in the military. So If it started as a Russian idiom, it seems to have been repurposed in English quite a while ago. But I thought it was a non-Russian invention playing on a stereotype of their directed economy during the cold war era. – Phil Sweet Apr 25 at 10:22
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    Why not leave the proverb as is, and clarify it as a Russian proverb? "This Russian proverb best describes the situation, 'Whatever a Russian does, they end up making the Kalashnikov gun.'" – Harrison Paine Apr 25 at 19:39

12 Answers 12

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If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The usual form of this saying is

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,

but the above form is used, and might be closer to what you want.

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    There's an alternate form that Google says is roughly as common : To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. – Peter Shor Apr 24 at 12:04
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    I've also heard both forms with "If" changed to "When" (i.e. "When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail." and "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.") – Anthony Grist Apr 24 at 15:45
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    @TatianaZhukova Mr Shor's answer is the best common expression in English and it's up to you, but I think it would probably be best to leave your idiom the way it is (using "a Kalashnikov" or "the AK-47" instead of the awkward "the Kalashnikov gun"). Most native speakers will be amused and enjoy learning about it, if they know it's being spoken by a Russian and thus not somehow racist. – lly Apr 24 at 16:02
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    I actually do not think this answer is correct. The hammer proverb implies that you want the kalashnikov to happen because it's the only solution that comes to your mind. The Russian saying is more humorous slash philosophical and implies that a Russian will end up making a kalashnikov even to his own great surprise, while honestly trying to build something else. – GSerg Apr 24 at 21:29
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    I don't understand why this is the chosen answer. The two idioms are saying two different things. – Django Reinhardt Apr 25 at 16:25
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Another famous aphorism is the following

you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

said to mean that it is very difficult to teach someone new skills or to change someone's habits or character (Cambridge Dictionary)

Usually said of people who set in their ways and are well past their twenties or thirties...

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    Mari-Lou, thank you for your idea! Although, there are a few things about this dog proverb that confuse me. First of all, I'm not sure about the age. In the original text, the proverb refers to the contractors we used to work with, and they were quite young (most probably, in their thirties or forties), open-minded people. And second, it would sound offensive and unrespectful to call our ex-contractors the old dogs :D – Tatiana Zhukova Apr 24 at 12:30
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    Here's this bit that I'm translating: 'A chunk of our budget was shelled out to buy game design documents prepared for us by two studios. The output was quite hefty. A great deal of work was done, no one's arguing. But what we got communicated a very different idea. May be even a good one, yet different. This proverb best describes the situation, “Whatever a Russian does, they end up making the Kalashnikov gun.” It was evident that people are used to and like doing things in a familiar way, based on their established practices for GDDs and without getting off the beaten track.' – Tatiana Zhukova Apr 24 at 12:33
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    @TatianaZhukova the person or company needn't be "old" they can just be set in their ways, a bit like being stuck in a rut. They view new ideas/technologies, and new technics with suspicion and are unlikely to make any sincere effort in learning or developing these new skills. – Mari-Lou A Apr 24 at 13:04
  • I heard more often "You can't teach new tricks to an old monkey." – Manuki Apr 24 at 15:42
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    There's also "You can't teach a new dog old tricks" used of young people who are unwilling to take the advice of folks who have been around for much longer over what they were taught on some course or other. – nigel222 Apr 24 at 15:58
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Not meant as a compliment, but neither is the Russian aphorism I suspect, it's a very well-known saying that claims people cannot change who they are.

a leopard can't/doesn't change its spots

something you say that means a person's character, especially if it is bad, will not change, even if they pretend that it will (Cambridge Dictionary)

The Phrase Finder says of its origins

'A leopard cannot change its spots' is found in the Bible, Jeremiah 13:23 (King James Version):

"Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil."

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    Mari-Lou, I appreciate your help! I would vote your suggestion as a second best choice. The Russian aphorism does have a bit of a complimentary touch, though. After all, a Kalashnikov is a matter of national pride. In Russia, there are a number of monuments dedicated to the inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, and to the gun itself. – Tatiana Zhukova Apr 25 at 11:26
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There is an idiom for this, and it applies without having to reference any animals or professions, or anything at all.

Old habits die hard

Normally this is used to talk about literal habits - such as smoking, or biting one's nails, but it can also be used to refer to old ways of doing things that aren't necessarily the best - which matches nicely with what you're trying to say in your blog post.

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All roads lead to Rome.

This idiom is often taken to mean that "all the methods of doing something will achieve the same result in the end." Cambridge Online Dictionary.

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I think many of the answers here are very good. However, I suspect that there's an element of the Russian quote that isn't quite being addressed. That is, in the "Every Russian invents the Kalashnikov" quote, I believe the Kalashnikov is supposed to be a high standard, and the idea is that if you ask anyone brilliant (i.e., a Russian) to invent a great gun, they will all come up with the same great gun: the Kalashnikov, since it's the greatest gun. So it's somewhat futile to have brilliant people to improve on perfection. I may be over emphasizing the Russian pride here, but my point is to contrast this with something like "You can't teach an old dog new tricks", which implies a low standard.

As such, I think something closer to Great minds think alike captures that part of the quote, although that's a little more general of a phrase. But in the context of

We asked two engineers to independently build a better mouse trap and they came up with the same design. Great minds think alike, I guess.

I think this would be closest to the Kalashnikov quote.

  • I think you're right about the Kalashnikov being a high standard, but I don't think this suggestion captures the intent of the original passage. The context around the quote reads to me as "the provided designs were vastly different than what was expected" not "two different sources each gave us the effectively the same design." – Timbo Apr 26 at 18:58
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    @Timbo: actually, despite writing this answer, I think you are right in this context. In regards to the passage in which the original phrase appeared, maybe something like you do what you know would be more appropriate. It's not necessarily bad quality work, but perhaps the work was more based on habit than directly answering the request – Cliff AB Apr 26 at 19:21
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It's too dated for general use, but one very similar idea is using the name Birmingham screwdriver for a hammer, the idea being that old simple brute force will get the job done well enough, regardless of what refinements people were expecting you to add.

Apparently French has the idea of déformation professionnelle: the tendency of experts to only see problems and solutions through the viewpoint of their own experience and professional biases. That's fairly close, and French expressions nearly always seem cultured in English.

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    Oddly, I've often used a screwdriver as a hammer (a well-made one can be quite effective for banging things), but never used a hammer as a screwdriver... – Darrel Hoffman Apr 24 at 18:10
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    @DarrelHoffman Back in the days before battery powered hand tools, I remember once asking an "old school" carpenter why he was joining two pieces of wood using screws and a hammer, not a screwdriver. His answer was "the threads on woodscrews are for taking them out, not for putting them in". – alephzero Apr 24 at 20:22
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    @DarrelHoffman : In case it wasn't clear, "using a hammer as a screwdriver" actually means using the screw as a nail. – Alsee Apr 25 at 16:57
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You could try the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

It's a bit more focussed on a family level, as opposed to national identity.

Roughly described, it says that children will not be very different from their parents. Particularly if the speaker thinks the parents are untrustworthy, they won't trust their children.


disclaimer: I don't personally consider this proverb to be true.

2

Wherever you go, there you are.

Because of the way the sentence is structured, at first it seems like it's a truism "wherever you go, there you are." While the hidden meaning is that "wherever you go, there you are."

It means that if you try to move somewhere to get away from a set of problems which you have created, you end up taking yourself with you. And you recreate the problems in the new place, to which you move, because you take the source of the problems with you.

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"Whatever a Russian does, they end up making the Kalashnikov gun”
 Are there any similar proverbs in English?

One needs to understand the design and history of the gun.

The Kalashnikov was simple, cheap, not made to tight tolerances and popular because it worked well and was widely distributed. Some successors were no improvement and it was not replaced by its much better successors because they suffered from limited funding and distribution, never gaining the popularity worthy of their better design.

  1. Comfortable as an old shoe. - Not particularly close. You are at ease / familiar with it, but it's seen better days.

  2. Adequate for our needs. - This is much closer, it implies that there are problems that are overlooked or unspoken; often due to greater cost or perceived complexity of something newer and better.

  3. Reinventing the square wheel. - Arguably the closest idiom. It means unnecessarily engineering artifacts that provide functionality already provided by existing standard artifacts (reinventing the wheel) and ending up with a worse result than the standard (a square wheel).

  4. Best practices. - Quite similar, if taken to mean copying something similar that works because it will be accepted and not because it's the best solution.

See Wikipedia's webpage for the AK-47, officially known as the Avtomat Kalashnikova:

"Design: The AK-47 was designed to be a simple, reliable fully automatic rifle that could be manufactured quickly and cheaply, using mass production methods that were state of the art in the Soviet Union during the late 1940s. The AK-47 uses a long stroke gas system that is generally associated with great reliability in adverse conditions. The large gas piston, generous clearances between moving parts, and tapered cartridge case design allow the gun to endure large amounts of foreign matter and fouling without failing to cycle.

See also: Strategy Page's article: "Weapons: A Better AK-47 But So What?" and "Weapons: Russia Cannot Afford A Better AK".

The so-called upgrade and improvements have been one step forward and one step back, which is an improvement over one step forward and two steps back, an effort that makes no sense.

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A tiger can't change his stripes

I may be misapprehending the situation, but I did check out the link to the original blog and read through Google's best effort at a translation.

This phrase, to me, gives a good approximation of the concept - that these game dev studios were all set in their ways, and while that isn't necessarily a bad thing - it just means that, 'they are what they are' - to be tautological.

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It depends on one’s interpretation of the Russian aphorism and I don’t have Russian or know much about Russians but if the opposite of "Every cloud has a silver lining" is needed, I cannot improve on anything suggested other than what came to my quirky mind which is "Every silver lining has a cloud" which gave me a bit of a chuckle.

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