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I came across the following expression

大事の前の小事

jisho.org says the following about it

don't put the trivial ahead of the important; don't sweat the small stuff; don't bother with the details (before embarking on a great enterprise)​Proverb

read the fine print; be careful of the small things (before embarking on a great enterprise)​Proverb

Doesn't it sound contradictory ? Could we assume that since Japanese (as i understand) relies heavily on context and this sentence is context-free (as a proverb) both interpretations are correct ?

My attempt so far to understand the 2 translations :

  • First translation uses the important; serious; crucial​ interpretation of 大事 (as given by Jisho) and the second the great undertaking; great enterprise; great thing interpretation
  • I would parse the first like 大事の / 前の小事 (the important / before the details) and the second like 大事の前 / の小事 (before the important / the details). Could we really parse it both ways ?
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    When I last came across this I simply decided to personally never use this expression due to it being ambiguous. May 24 at 20:31
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The proverb simply says “small things before big things” and this may be interpreted in two completely opposite ways. The difference is not due to how it is parsed or how individual elements are interpreted.

This site explains the two meanings are follows:

  1. 大きな事を前にしたら、取るに足りない小さなことなどどうでもよい
  1. 大きな事を成す前には必ず小さな事があり、その小さな事の積み重ねが重要だ

If this is accurate, the word 前 may be used in its spatial sense in the first and in its temporal sense in the second. But I don’t think this distinction is important. Either way, it’s “small things before big things” and the rest is up to the context.

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