Translatable but Debatable – Patience of Paper

Patience of Paper
by Mark L. Levinson

Does it matter that this month the decathlonist formerly known as Bruce Jenner metamorphosed into Caitlyn Jenner?  Ruth Schueler of Jerusalem berated the Jerusalem Post for publishing “this rubbish about a narcissistic male transforming himself into a narcissistic female” and closed by grumbling:  My mother used to say: “Paper is patient.”

In Hebrew, of course, it’s הנייר סובל הכל or more rarely הנייר סובל את הכל.

I haven’t contacted Ms. Schueler’s to ask about her mother’s background, but the Internet credits versions of the saying to various languages and sources:

  • “the German proverb, ‘Papier ist geduldig’:  ‘paper does not blush’ (literally, ‘paper is patient’).”

    In other words, “As Engels said, ‘Paper will bear anything that is written on it.’”
  • “There's an old Russian Proverb: paper suffers anything.”

    In other words “Paper will bear without complaint, whatever is written upon it” or “Paper will bear the weight of anything written on it” (attributed to Stalin in forms including both the former and the latter).

    Or “As Trotsky once said, in discussing the atrocious propaganda of Third Period Stalinism in the 1930s:  ‘Paper is long-suffering and will reproduce any madness that is imposed on it in the form of ink.’”
  • “a Ukrainian saying that:  ‘paper will bear anything’”
  • “There was a Cuban say:  ‘El papel lo aguanta todo’ which freely translated means ‘you can put in paper anything.’”
  • Jonathan Clark Eagle (1864-1941) was a son of Enoch Eagle and Susannah Siron.  He was a farmer in the Stonewall District [of Virginia], first along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, then in the Doe Hill area.  As quoted by his son Ray, he said ‘A piece of paper doesn't care what you write on it, it just lies there.’”

  •  “a beautiful old Afrikaans saying:  ‘papier is geduldig’”
  • As a Spanish saying goes, “A little sheet of paper can bear anything.”

I like the Spanish, because of the vividness of the “little” sheet of paper.  But the Polish people — at least some of them — feel they have some pride of ownership in the saying and they even mounted a museum exhibition with the title Cierpliwość Papieru (Patience of Paper), which critic Kerrod Trott called “a reference to a common Polish saying that ‘paper will accept anything’ indicating the neutrality of paper as a carrier of information or artistic content.”

One translator called upon to render ‘Papier ist geduldig’ into English tells  “I guess I don't understand how paper can be patient, and I don't think my customer will understand either....”

Indeed the word geduldig carries more than the today’s simple everyday meaning of “patient.”  Word Hippo says that it can mean “meek,” “patient,” or “uncomplaining.”  In this case the point is more that the paper doesn’t complain than that it’s willing to wait a long time.

Similarly, when we say that “paper suffers anything” or that “paper is long-suffering” we’re not using today’s simple everyday meaning of “suffer.”  We’re using a sense that’s gone a bit antique, and it’s more like the Hebrew meaning of סובל, a “suffer” word that can also mean “put up with” according to context.  “Suffer” can even mean “allow” as in a 19th-century prayer by Rev. Robert Wynell Mayow, curate of Ardwick, near Manchester:  Suffer me not, O Lord, to be hurried away by wordly thoughts. — Suffer me not to be seduced into false happiness. — Suffer me not to delight in thoughts that must end in pain.

The word “patience” comes from the Latin for “suffer,” and the concepts of suffering and patience had a long ride through history together before settling down, at least currently, to meaning the ability to wait and the experience of discomfort, respectively.

Anne Frank wrote in Dutch, “Papier is geduldiger dan mensen.”  In the English translation, the relevant passage goes:

“Paper has more patience than people.”  I thought of this saying on one of those days when I was feeling a little depressed and was sitting at home with my chin in my hands, bored and listless, wondering whether to stay in or go out.  I finally stayed where I was, brooding.  Yes, paper does have more patience, and since I'm not planning to let anyone else read this stiff-backed notebook grandly referred to as a ‘diary,’ unless I should ever find a real friend, it probably won't make a bit of difference.  Now I'm back to the point that prompted me to keep a diary in the first place:  I don't have a friend.

Although perhaps she had in mind, self-effacingly, the usual meaning — that paper will put up with whatever drivel is written on it — there is also the implication that paper is like a patient friend.  Some readers of the diary, who may be unfamiliar with aging idioms, gravitate to that latter meaning.  They may even see a third, prophetic meaning in that her fellow townspeople would not even wait for Anne’s sixteenth birthday whereas the paper diary waited all through the war and resurfaced.  “It means that what you write will always be there, even when you're gone, and it can also mean that paper is the perfect listener, you can write and write and tell it whatever you want,” says one reader.

If it were up to me, I’d translate הנייר סובל הכל as “Paper puts up with anything,” but tradition must be respected and according to The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs, the English version “Paper does not blush” has seniority harking at least back to 1577, when John Grange’s The Golden Aphroditis presented it as an already existing saying:

If needes you woulde haue opened (quoth she) your budget of villany vnto me, yet better mighte you haue done it with penne and inke, who (as the Prouerbe goeth) neuer blusheth, then with that shamefull tongue of yours...

The space below will put up with a lot, although not everything. Please do comment on the patience of paper as discussed above, but if you’d like to take the discussion off to a different problem of translation — a different word or phrase that’s translatable but debatable — please write to me at and I’ll see about devoting a separate column to it.