Found in Translation
English-speaking Russians may seem a little too negative, both in everyday conversation and serious negotiations. Indeed, phrases like “you are not right,” “it’s not correct” or the more idiomatic “that’s not so” come up all the time when you discuss issues with a Russian.
Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister, was famously known as Mr. Nyet, even though, eventually, he would strike a deal and sign agreements.
Is this apparent “negativism” a matter of culture? Is Russian culture the opposite of Japanese, in which they don’t say “no” even when they mean no? My answer is: perhaps. But let me move to the more familiar terrain of language.
It is actually true that many things that are commonly expressed in an affirmative way in English tend to acquire a negation in Russian. Where an American would ask you to “hold on” the phone, a Russian would say “Ne kladite trubku” (literally “don’t lay down the receiver”). Where an Englishman would wish you to stay well, a Russian would probably put it this way: “Ne bolei” (“Don’t fall ill”). There are many ways of saying “take it easy” in Russian – and there is a “ne” in practically all of them. When we ask for directions or the time of day, we do it in a way that contains a negation, so that when some Russians unwittingly transplant the pattern into English it sounds very funny: “Can’t you tell me how to get to Times Square?” or “Can’t you tell me what time it is?” It sounds as if one expects to get no reply or is being deliberately impolite. In fact, in Russian it’s the opposite: a polite way of putting it.
It is here that things get really interesting: our “no” is not always a real no. It can be surprisingly flexible, sometimes serving to convey understatement where other languages would force you to call a spade a spade. For example, the Russian word “nevysokiy” (literally “not tall”) is used when a person is really, well, short. Some other adjectives with “ne” are also quite interesting. “Nebednyi” (literally “not poor”) is used a little sarcastically to describe a person who is quite wealthy. And, translators, beware, “neveroyatnyi” (according to many dictionaries, “improbable” or “unlikely”) actually means “highly unlikely,” almost impossible, and in colloquial speech, “incredible.”
Rather than being a flat negation, “ne” can make things rather vague. The Russian phrase that’s literally translated as “in a not distant future” can mean anything – tomorrow, or in a few days, weeks or even months. The adjective “nemalovazhnyi” is as vague as the English phrase “of no small importance,” but it is certainly used more often than its English equivalent. Don’t ask me why.
The bottom line is that we are not as negative as we may sound. We too can be surprisingly flexible.