10 Russian words impossible to translate into English
Drawing by Grigory Avoyan
Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, who lectured on Slavic Studies to students in America, admitted that he couldn’t translate this word, which every Russian easily understands.
What is poshlost (пошлость)? Nabokov gives the following example: "Open any magazine and you’ll certainly find something like this - a family just bought a radio (a car, a refrigerator, silverware, it doesn't matter), and the mother is clapping her hands, mad with joy, the children gathered around her with their mouths agape; the baby and the dog are leaning towards the table on which the `idol’ has been hoisted… a bit to the side victoriously stands the father, the proud breadwinner. The intense "poshlosity" of such a scene comes not from the false exaggeration of the dignity of a particular useful object, but from the assumption that the greatest joy can be bought and that such a purchase ennobles the buyer."
"This word includes triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity and soullessness," added the late Professor Svetlana Boym from Harvard University.
German Wikipedia has an entire article dedicated to the word nadryv (надрыв). This is a key concept in the writings of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. The word describes an uncontrollable emotional outburst, when a person releases intimate, deeply hidden feelings.
Moreover, Dostoevsky's nadryv implies a situation in which the protagonist indulges in the thought that he can find in his soul something that may not even exist. That's why the nadryv often expressed imaginary, excessively exaggerated and distorted feelings. One part of the novel, Brothers Karamazov, is called "Nadryvs."
In Dovlatov's view, it’s with impunity that khamstvo (хамство) outright kills us. It's impossible to fight it; you can only resign yourself to it. "I've lived in this mad, wonderful, horrifying New York for ten years and am amazed by the absence of khamstvo. Anything can happen to you here, but there’s no khamstvo. You can be robbed but no one will shut the door in your face," added the writer.
Some linguists believe stushevatsya (стушеваться) was introduced by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who used it for the first time in a figurative sense in his novella, The Double. This word means to be less noticeable, go to the background, lose an important role, noticeably leave the scene, become confused in an awkward or unexpected situation, become meek.
This Russian word can be translated as "emotional pain," or "melancholy," but this does not transmit all of its depth. Vladimir Nabokov wrote that, "Not one word in English can transmit all the nuances of toska (тоска). This is a feeling of spiritual suffering without any particular reason. On a less dolorous level, it’s the indistinct pain of the soul…vague anxiety, nostalgia, amorous longing."
This word comes from the Russian byt'(to exist). In Russian-English dictionaries this philosophical concept is translated as "being." However, bytie (бытие) is not just life or existence, it’s the existence of an objective reality that is independent of human consciousness (cosmos, nature, matter).
Eliot Borenstein, professor of Slavic Studies at New York University, explains that bespredel (беспредел) literally means "without restrictions or limits." Translators often use "lawlessness" (bezzakonie). In Russian, however, the meaning of bespredel is much broader, and refers to the behavior of a person who violates not only the law, but also moral and social norms.
It’s rather difficult to explain to people of other nationalities what this means. Interestingly, many people believe that avos' (авось) is the main Russian national trait. Hoping for the avos' means doing something without planning, without putting in much effort, counting on success.
This word is often translated into English as "feat" or "achievement," but it has other meanings. Podvig (подвиг) is not just a result, or the achievement of an objective; it’s a brave and heroic act, an action performed in difficult circumstances. Russian literature often mentions military, civilian podvigs and even scientific podvigs. Moreover, this word is a synonym for selfless acts, for example, a podvig in the name of love.