(Sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi;
“The sandalwood tree is fragrant from when it’s a sprout”)
Genius shows even in childhood. Just as the wood of the sandalwood tree smells nice even when it is just a sapling, so a human of exceptional talent shows their ability from an early age. If your kid were Mozart, they’d probably already be writing concertos.
A full sentence in classical grammar presents itself. Fortunately, while the structure might surprise someone used only to the modern language, nothing here is terribly difficult. We begin with the noun 栴檀 (sendan), a tree known in English by multiple names including “Chinaberry” and “bead tree.” (However, see below for a note on the tree’s identity.) This noun is marked withは (wa), which we can often read as simply the topic marker. In this case, though, I believe that the particle carries an implicit contrast: the sandalwood tree, as opposed to other, less fragrant trees, smells nice even as a tiny sprout.
Topic established, we move on to a verbless predicate. 双葉 (futaba), literally “pair of leaves,” means a bud or sprout – in this case, a sprouting sapling rather than a bud on the stem. The particle より (yori), often translatable as “rather than” (as in last week’s 花より団子), here takes the older sense of “from” or “since.” 芳し (kanbashi) is the adjective “sweet-scented,” “fragrant” in sentence-final form. (If a verbless sentence bothers you, then console yourself with the fact that a longer version of the phrase ends with a verb, in accordance with normal Japanese syntax.)
双葉 can be replaced with 二葉 without any change in meaning or pronunciation. 芳し can be read koubashi. The entire phrase has a longer variant, 栴檀は双葉より薫じ梅花は蕾めるに香あり (sendan wa futaba yori kunji baika wa tsubomeru ni kou ari), meaning “Sandalwood is fragrant from when it is a sprout, and the plum-flower has a sweet smell while in the bud.” Interestingly, while 薫, 香, and 芳 are all essentially synonyms, the longer phrase uses only the first two characters while the short version uses only the last one.
The saying uses 栴檀, but my sources tell me that the tree intended is actually 白檀 (byakudan), even though the latter name is never substituted into the phrase. It seems likely that the two trees were conflated, or one mistaken for the other, at some point – they are both mainland Asia plants, not native to Japan – and that the error has simply been preserved in this saying.
This kotowaza is included in the Kyoto Iroha karuta set, as one of two alternative せ entries.
(“Sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi to iu no wa hontou de, kotoshi Nooberu-shou wo totta kata wa chuugakusei no toki, sude ni sekibungaku wo rikai shiteita rashii.”)
[“Genius really does show from a young age; apparently, this year’s Nobel Prize winner could do integral calculus in junior high.”]