Bewitched by Evil Eyes and Black Envy

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Зависть in Russian is a nasty and evil emotion. The verb завидовать (to envy someone) is related to the word видать (to see — видеть in contemporary Russian) and seems to have been first associated with дурной глаз (the evil eye). If someone looked enviously at you, he could hex your success. Later under Christianity, this black magic became one of the seven sins.

Today in Russia, зависть comes in two main types, белая и чёрная (white and black), which represent a benign and admiring pleasure on the one hand and a bitter and rancorous ill will on the other. Although Western philosophers have noted this distinction, we don’t commonly distinguish between these two kinds of envy in everyday speech, which makes their translation rather awkward. Я завидую тебе белой завистью means something like “I envy you in a good way” — that is, “I am happy for you and wish that your good fortune or success would rub off on me.” On the other hand, Я, признаюсь, завидовал тебе чёрной завистью means something like “I admit I was bitterly envious of you,” which is to say: “I wasn’t the least happy for you and hoped you’d lose your good fortune or success — preferably to me.”

If you are feeling the good kind of envy — emulation envy — you might say: У него здоровье на зависть — пашет с утра до ночи и никогда не болеет (He has enviable good health — he works from morning until night and never gets sick). When you call something завидный (enviable), you are probably operating in the white magical realm of envy. Он обладает одним завидным качеством — никогда ни на кого не обижается (He has one enviable quality — he never takes offense at anyone). When you use завидный in reference to a single man, you are probably hoping to bewitch him: Завидный жених (literally, enviable groom) is what we call an eligible bachelor in English.

In both English and Russian, envy/зависть is associated with bile (желчь), one of those nasty humors that the ancients believed to be the source of emotional and physical distress. Dostoevsky’s narrator in “Notes from the Underground” famously declared: “[Я] завидую нормальному человеку до последней желчи” (“I envy a normal person to my last drop of bile”). Today you aren’t likely to hear about bilious envy, but the Russian afterglow of a bile attack is still tinted green or yellow: Он позеленел/пожелтел от зависти (He turned green/yellow with envy).

Over the millennia, Russians have been keen and often sharp-tongued observers of завистники (envious people). Relatively benign envy — yearning tinged pale green — can be conveyed with phrases like Чего нет, того и хочется (You want whatever you don’t have), or Там хорошо, где нас нет (The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence). When you stir a bit of greed to the envy cauldron, you can say: В чужих руках пирог велик, а как достанется — мал покажется (The pie is big in someone else’s hands, but once you get it, it seems small).

If you want to bemoan the wretched nature of human beings, you can sigh: Где счастье, там и зависть (Where there is happiness, there is envy). This is also encapsulated by the witty but woeful: Сосед спать не даёт; хорошо живёт (My neighbor keeps me up at night — he lives well).

Зависть can also be tainted with злорадство, a word that doesn’t have an exact English equivalent. Злорадство is something like gloating, only darker and deeper — the Russian version of schadenfreude, pleasure taken from someone else’s misfortune. This has been famously distilled into the expression: У соседа корова сдохла — пустячок, а приятно (literally, my neighbor’s cow died — it’s a little thing, but pleasant all the same).

If you ever experience that kind of pleasure over a dead cow, you’ve been bewitched by envy. Take two aspirin and call your spiritual adviser in the morning.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.