Words We Can't Express In English, Fortunately

We spend a lot of time in this column waxing about words that Russian has picked up from English: biznes, marketing and compyutery, to name a few.

That's understandable, given that there are a lot of Western concepts that the Russian language never had to cope with until recently.

But the game works two ways, as anyone who has found the local grocery store closed po tekhnicheskim prichinam (for technical reasons) will tell you. Some concepts just defy description in any other language or culture. The "technical reasons" that used to keep my favorite Soviet pizzeria closed were that they had run out of cheese.

Just listen to any foreigner who has been in Moscow for more than two weeks. No one at home will ever be able to understand him or her again. What would your average Joe in Kansas City think if he heard "I can't start the remont on my apartment because the paint store is closed for sanitarny den."

But the Moscow foreigner just can't help it. You can't substitute "repair" for remont. Remont is no simple repair job. It is an entire painful process involving ripped-up floors, cracked tiles, dripping paint and long inexplicable delays. Thousands of us have experienced its depressing moments. And sanitarny den is no "simple" cleaning day. How is it, anyway, that stores in the West manage never to close for an entire day of cleaning yet look far more scrubbed than anything here?

Try describing your furniture to someone back home. Sure, you can translate stenka as "wall unit," but does that really describe the gargantuan dark-paneled set of shelves and cupboards that lines every Russian apartment from Pskov to Sakhalin Island?

Would "pass" accurately describe the dreaded propusk? Somehow, "Where's your pass?" just does not conjure up a hulking guard determined to block the doorway until you produce the flimsy dog-eared slip of paper you need to get to the other side.

Likewise, neither "certificate" nor "permission slip" express the time and patience it takes to get a spravka to swim in your local pool.

And "concierge" does not seem the appropriate word to describe the dezhurnaya policing your hotel floor.

At the airport, is passportny kontrol really "immigration?" Outside your building, is the garbage-strewn dvor really a courtyard?

And how about the GAI? Does a "traffic cop" pull you over with an arbitrary wave of his black-and-white stick, demand your documents and extract sums of money from you for no reason at all?

These questions can be answered only with another untranslatable word: nelzya -- something akin to "no way."