Translation of 切磋琢磨 into English. Does anyone use this phrase?

Hey guys, I hope everyone’s studies are going well.

Since I’ve been living in Japan I have become friends with a Japanese person who has a strong desire to learn English, similar to my strong desire to learn Japanese. This friend and I often discuss many things about the languages such as, comparing different aspects of small talk and learning new phrases.

Because of this, my friend and I have begun to describe our friendship with the Japanese word 切磋琢磨(せっさたくま)which means to mutually strive for improvement. However, when my friend asked me how to express this phrase in English, of course I told her that you could say “to mutually strive for improvement” but it’s not quite a set phrase like 切磋琢磨 is in Japanese. I continued, saying that the phrase “iron sharpens iron” might be the closest thing to a phrase that can describe it. That’s when my friend (who is also American) jumped in and said that only religious people use the phrase “iron sharpens iron” and that most people probably wouldn’t know the phrase. I’m a Christian and I understand that the phrase comes form the Bible, but I thought that it is a phrase known and used by many English speakers, not just people who go to Church lol.

So my question is this: do you often use and or hear the phrase “iron sharpens iron”? If not, what phrase would you use to describe 切磋琢磨?

Thanks and God bless! :slight_smile:


I wouldn’t expect every yojijukugo to have an equivalent set expression in English.

This page has “learning from each other” as an English translation.

And as a lifelong non-religious person I can attest to having never heard anyone say “iron sharpens iron,” though the meaning seems obvious enough from context.


Yep, me too. Never heard of the phrase “iron sharpens iron”, even though I went to church every week for the first 18 years of my life (not that I paid that much attention).

It seems like there would be a common English phrase, but I’m coming up blank.

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Probably too vague and unspecific, but “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” could work.
I’ve also never heard the phrase iron sharpens iron. Might be a more rural phrase.

Yep, it’s from Proverbs 27:17: As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. (New Living Translation)

I wouldn’t say I hear that phrase often, but when the situation calls for it that’s what I would usually say. But I grew up in the church, so. But — if I heard it from a stranger, it would not signal affiliation to any particular religion to me, so I think it’s safe for anyone to use.

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If you want to be playful / snarky, you could say something like, “We are a mutual improvement society~”

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Though I was very christian growing up, I’d actually never heard anyone say that either.

That said, I think the meaning of iron sharpens iron is pretty self-evident, though a little weird as a way of describing a relationship. One hand washes the other comes to my mind, but conjures up images of backdoor deals to me rather than mutual improvement.

Maybe because I’m not Christian and I’ve never read a Bible, but I’ve never heard anyone say that phrase, Christian or otherwise.

I grew up in a Catholic household and school and have never heard the phrase. I dont think there will be a good translation for that phrase exactly, but it does seem to have a you scratch my back, i scratch yours kinda feel to it i suppose haha

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Two keen intellects may profit from each other. That would be a possible understanding from that text in Proverbs although, for example, the King James and the New International don’t render the Hebrew in equivalent ways. Further, consider this text from Job: “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” In some cases, per physics possibly, no substance sharpens its own kind. Here, the Spirit is alive in Job and his friends in different ways. God protects, I think, the understanding of His Word, whether a person found church useful or not.

I have NEVER heard that phrase. I live/grew up in Southern California in case it’s a regional thing (maybe Bible Belt?)

Well, my thoughts go well beyond that, but we don’t have to get into it.

Maybe it is a more rural phrase but I’m from the suburbs of Detroit haha.

Right, the self-evidence of the phrase makes it useful in my sight.

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I used the word “useful” as a kind of shorthand. Some people think that Christianity goes wrong in easy and obvious ways. I am embarrassed to say that I used to, but then I met a Jesuit who boxed my ears and I came to change my ways. Now, I just sort of collect the points that others take to be knock-downs and discuss them over port with a friend or two. You might put forward one or two basic points, just for my information. It can be very succinctly done. For example, “I don’t think there are mighty non-human forces” or “intelligent evil.” I’d thank you for that. I have no interest in getting into it either.

I’ll admit I have no idea what you were trying to get into with your initial response to me, but if that post was an indication that you didn’t want to get into it (discussing religion), that’s cool too.

I was always wondering about that one: how does one know that not all English (or other) translations are not totally misleading?


A scholar in the Reformed tradition would say, I think, that the first attempt would be to reconcile the differences between two (competing) translations, and that the difference is not an intractable one. If one translation, for example, denies the divinity of Christ, all that the two can do is quit. Some, Baptism of Infants for example, would be, is given, a very broad understanding, and lived with. What God Himself thinks about that, I don’t know. If you shake his hand as you go down the receiving line in Heaven, just ask Him. I recall asking one of my parents (I was very young) what the Bible had to say about the lot next to our home being bulldozed. Without the context of the question, it says nothing. Discussions of translations typically involve appeals to any germane evidence and now you are in the land of “good, better, best” reasons. To propose that the translation of a text, much less the whole Bible, is wholly misleading–well, the first question will want you to disclose your reasons for saying that. Then we are back into the goodness of your reasons for that assertion. A person can’t say, I think, that his Rice Krispies , after he poured the milk and translated the snap-crackle-pop message, told him so. The matter is always one of the goodness of evidence. Of course, that can be a very vexed question–what evidence from what source will count and how it can be brought to bear on the question. You’re a “60”. You have the knowledge of Japanese to read the text they use. If the Japanese is out of harmony with the English, you start to appeal up the line to scholars of the several languages, to issues of science, geography, history, chronology. At some point the discussion must come to an end, nothing further about the translation is objectionable. The text is either thought to be good or simply deemed forever unknowable.

Okay, I have an iron and another iron. How do I sharpen them?