10 Untranslatable Russian Words
25 April, 2017
Ever struggled to find the right words in English to describe your undying love for one person, your hair-of-the-dog hangover cure or the humdrum of everyday life? Look no further! These untranslatable Russian words provide a glimpse into the mysteries of the language and give you a whole new set of vocabulary to use.
Has something ever seemed tacky, kitsch and vulgar all at the same time? Then maybe it was ‘пошлость’! There is a subtext of shallowness and triviality (какая пошлость! – How petty!), as well as a slight smuttiness. The word ‘tacky’ pretty much sums it up but that doesn’t quite convey the full meaning, as there is a falseness behind ‘пошлость’ that makes it even more off-putting.
Probably the one of the most well-known untranslatable words, Nabokov’s famous description is better than anything I could hope to come up with: ‘No single word in English renders all the shades of ‘toska’. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.’
Coming from the noun ‘закон’ (a law), the adjective ‘закономерный’ has slightly different meanings depending on the context. The idea is one of regularity and logic. For example, a ‘закономерный шаг’ means ‘the next step’, and a ‘знакономерный вопрос’ is a valid or logical question. The overriding feeling is inevitability and the natural order of things.
Don’t be confused if someone calls you a ‘самородок’! This literally means a nugget of precious metal (usually gold) but colloquially it’s used to describe an intelligent person who doesn’t have a formal education – a naturally-gifted individual. A ‘самородок’ is someone innately clever and quick-witted who trusts their instincts.
If your partner’s an ‘однолюб’, you’re a lucky lady! Taken from the words ‘одно’ (‘one’) and ‘любить’ (‘to love’), this term is used to describe a man who only has one love in his life or can only love one person at a time. It could be translated as a ‘one-woman man’ or the opposite of a womaniser, but I think this takes away some of its romanticism.
Derived from the verb ‘быть’ (‘to be’), ‘быт’ can be translated as a way of life or the daily routine. Rather than the abstract concept of ‘being’, ‘быт’ conveys the idea of day-to-day life. Although the word is neutral (в быту – in private life, сельской/городской быт – country/city life), it can sometimes be used negatively to describe drudgery. For example, ‘домашний быт’ means home life but also daily chores.
This word’s meaning varies according to the situation. On the whole, it’s used to describe something that is aesthetically pleasing or an enjoyable experience. The general idea of ‘стройный’ is elegance and harmony, and there is a sense of symmetry and balance. For example, a ‘стройная фигура’ can be translated as a slim or lithe figure, and a ‘стройное звучание’ is a harmonious sound.
Trust Russian to have a word specifically for treating hangovers! If you’re hungover and decide to ‘опохмелиться’, it means you’re drinking more alcohol to try and take the edge off – their equivalent to ‘hair of the dog’. The verb even features in the poem ‘Вон Самогон!’ (‘That’s Moonshine!) by the great Mayakovsky: ‘В животе огонь, голова трещит – надо, значит, опохмелиться’ (There’s a fire in my stomach, my head is pounding – this means I must drink some more)
At first, this word seemed easy to translate as ‘freebie’. However, ‘халява’ almost has a negative connotation. It implies that you’re receiving something for free but also taking advantage of the situation. For example, if you drink or watch TV ‘на халяву’, it means that you’re kind of exploiting that fact that it’s free. If someone is described as a ‘халявщик’, then they’re a freeloader!
Derived from the Russian for ‘why’ (‘почему’), a ‘почемучка’ is someone who asks a lot of questions. However, while constant questioning and busy-bodying is seen as a negative attribute in English, ‘почемучка’ isn’t an insult and is seen as harmless curiosity. The term became popular after the 1939 publication of Boris Zhitkov’s ‘What I Saw’ (‘Что я видел’) – the curious little protagonist of this children’s book is nicknamed ‘почемучка’.
So next time you want to describe the natural talent of your friend or a child who won’t stop asking questions, use some Russian! Don’t forget to take a look at the Liden & Denz blog for more articles on the wonder of the Russian language!
This post was brought to you by Tilly Hicklin, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, St. Petersburg.