Hedging Your Russian
- By Michele A. Berdy
- Dec. 12 2008 00:00
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A Russian friend and I have been enjoying a long conversation about whether or not Russian speakers are by culture or nature more categorical than English speakers. This conversation, delightfully unencumbered by the demands of scholarship (research, evidence, testing or literature reviews), is, of course, inconclusive. But so far, in my qualified American way I am leaning toward a tentative "yes" for categorical-ness as a Russian national trait. My friend, in her categorical Russian way, says: Без вопросов! (No question about it!) In fact, she insists -- categorically -- that even when she tries to qualify her statements, her Russian colleagues respond to her suggestions as if they were assertions.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Russian is a great language for hedging, fudging, qualifying and suggesting.
For example, if you are discussing something theoretical, you can use the third person plural forms of допускать (to admit, allow, concede) or предположить (to suggest). Предположим, у нас все стали идеальными чиновниками (Let's say that all our bureaucrats become ideal civil servants). Допустим, перестали воровать (Let's hypothesize that they stop stealing). If you accept this supposition -- that is, if you've been drinking copiously and are feeling generous in your assessment of human nature -- you can neatly respond: Ну, допустим (OK, I buy it).
If an issue is out of the theoretical but still in the realm of the uncertain, you can start your sentence with возможно (it's possible), мне кажется (it seems to me), я допускаю (I allow), я думаю (I think) or the more tentative and less certain я не думаю (I don't think).
Next in the hierarchy of tentativeness is the ubiquitous expression в принципе (in principle), which foreigners learn by day three of their first visit because they hear it so often. It can imply that something is possible but perhaps not realistic. В принципе, так и надо жить (In principle, that's the way we ought to live). This might mean: Yes, we ought to eat our vegetables, get exercise and never smoke ... but in reality, we're going to continue to go to hell in a handbasket.
В основном is used to describe a phenomenon that is true for the most part. Кофейни популярны в основном среди молодежи (Coffee houses are mainly popular among young people). Another word that is good for this situation is преимущественно (largely, chiefly), a satisfying mouthful of fudging. Этот зверёк питается преимущественно насекомыми (This animal feeds primarily on insects). Or you could also use главным образом (in the main): Этот вид мышки живёт главным образом в пустыне (This type of mouse mainly lives in the desert).
If you are qualifying something that can be quantified, you might use the phrase по большей части (for the most part). Сегодняшний выпуск новостей будет по большей части посвящен событиям на мировых рынках (Today's newscast will be mostly dedicated to events on the world markets).
And then there are expressions that use a form of какой-то (some) that qualify the extent to which an assertion is true. В каком-то смысле обвал экономики уже произошел (In some respects, the economy has already crashed). Он до какой-то степени был человеком 20-го века, живущим в веке 21-ом (To some extent, he was a 20th-century man living in the 21st century).
You can also make it very easy on yourself. If you hear an assertion that you largely agree with, you can simply say: В общем, да. This could be translated as "in general, yes," but it really means: I don't quite agree with you, but right now I can't think of a good counterargument.
And then categorically refute it.
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.