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Having grown up overseas, I am no stranger to the problem of searching for a word in my native language and coming up empty. After becoming fluent in my second language, Russian, and spending years living and working in that language, I often find myself code switching when trying to express myself in English. This happens the most when I’m trying to describe a very particular word that has no direct interpretation in English, or it can happen simply because the Russian word carries more cultural meaning than the English equivalent would. Either way, the more languages I am exposed to, the more I find that not all words are equal, and some languages offer more details on certain subjects than others.
The more languages I am exposed to, the more I find that not all words are equal, and some languages offer more details on certain subjects than others.
Second-language speakers often stumble upon words and phrases that communicate specific ideas better or more fully than their own mother tongue might. Sometimes a word just feels better in another language. Let’s look at some of my favorite words and phrases in Russian that are hard to translate into English:
как раз – kak raz
idiom, literally: how time
Roughly translated, this word can mean just in time/just right/exactly/perfectly/precisely/about to/on the nose. However, this can also be a way to punctuate the certainty of a statement just made or affirm someone else’s comment or opinion. This phrase can be used to make a friend feel better about an outfit they’ve chosen, or highlight an irrefutable fact in an argument. In the words of the three bears, this phrase is just right.
oго – ogo
interjection, expression of surprise
This can be translated as wow/oh boy/aha/woah. This is a word that carries not only a fun meaning, but also a regional flavor. Less used in western Russian cities, this particular interjection is most common in villages throughout Siberia. While not rude or vulgar, this interjection will certainly be corrected by any Russian speech teacher.
дача – dacha
noun, summer home/summer cottage/chalet/garden home/cabin
While this word seems to have a one-to-one translation, the Russian word conjures up a very different image in the mind of the speaker. In English, a summer home or cottage would call to mind a quiet little house, maybe tucked back in the woods or near a beach, where a family would go to relax for a few weeks during the summer. This is rather different from the Russian idea of “dacha.” In Russia, a “dacha” is where you go every week during the summer to tend to your garden plot. Most of these houses are co-owned with extended family, and the responsibility is shared through the summer, with the harvest divided in the fall. Though most of Russia’s population lives in cities, agriculture is still a major part of life. Consequently, a “dacha” is more than just a relaxing summer home, but a necessity to have fresh fruits and vegetables, and a place to prepare and pickle produce to last through the cold winter months in the city. While “summer home” or “garden home” can grasp some of this image, it could never be fully described in one word in English.
чайник – chainik
noun, tea kettle/teapot/kettle
I’ll admit, this word is easily translated into English, with all possible translations falling into the same semantic category. However, like the last term, this word brings to mind a slightly different image to a native Russian speaker than its counterpart in English. In English, “tea kettle” would make one think of a cheerfully whistling teapot sitting on the stove. Some people have a tea kettle, some people don’t. It is not necessarily a staple of life (at least not in the American English speaking world). In Russian, the first image associated with “chainik” would be an electric teapot, always at the ready to entertain guests or waiting in the corner of the office for the next tea break. The “chainik” is an integral part of the Russian experience, and present in all places where Russians are gathered.
молодец – molodets
noun, good person/good boy/brave fellow; phrase, good job/well done/atta-boy
This final word is one that can be basically translated into English, but does not come across as succinctly as it does in Russian. Its most common usage is as an accolade extended to someone doing a good thing, easily translated as “good job!” When used as a noun, though, there is not quite the same idea expressed in English. In Russian, it is quite common to congratulate someone and tell them they are a “molodets.” But when that is translated directly into English, that same person would be told they are a “good boy,” which holds less of a congratulatory meaning, and more of a condescending tone. Perhaps the English language places a higher value on results, while Russian places more value on the person achieving said results. Whatever the case, there is not quite an equivalent English noun or noun phrase that would not sound mildly sarcastic, when used in the same context as “molodets.”
As a linguist and a collector of languages, I often find myself struggling to stay confined within my first language. The more languages I study, the more I find that sometimes I can express myself in another language more clearly than my own. I have a growing list of foreign words that seem to be infiltrating my English vocabulary, and I can’t say that I’m sad about that.
The more languages I study, the more I find that sometimes I can express myself in another language more clearly than my own.
Each multi-lingual speaker’s list will be different, since language usage is rather subjective. However, students of any language will find that the deeper they delve into a foreign tongue, the more they will discover the joy of code-switching and the burden of explaining themselves, as they discover more and more words they wish existed in English.
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