Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

To Speak Betrayal

?????: to give someone away, to rat on someone.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

In English, we sometimes say that hatred is just one step away from love. Well, in Russian, devotion and betrayal are flip sides of the same word. ??? ????????? ???? ???? ?????? (my devoted friend betrayed me). Hmm. This is the sort of thing that tends to drive us non-native speakers around the bend, but actually it's not so hard to understand.

??????? has the original sense of "to hand something over" (????????). It is used in phrases like ??????? ???? ????? (to commit someone's body to the earth); ??????? ????????? ???? (to hand the culprit over to the courts); or ??????? ???-?? ????????? (to make something public, to make something known, literally, "to give voice to something"). If you use the somewhat old-fashioned reflexive form ???????????/?????????, it means "to give yourself over to something/someone," "to devote yourself to something/someone": ?? ?????????? ????????? (he surrendered to contemplation). From this you get the adjective ?????????, which means committed or devoted, or the noun ??????????? (devotion).

But when you give someone or something over to someone else, it means you are betraying them. ?? ?????? ????? ????? ????? (he revealed my secret to my enemy). ?? ???? ?????? (he betrayed me).

If the betrayal was of a personal nature, you might clarify that: ?? ??? ??????? (he was unfaithful to me). In the domestic context, ?????? is marital infidelity; in the governmental context, it's treason. It's reassuring to know that Russians regard a little fooling around on the side as a high crime. It's not so reassuring to know that crimes of the heart or mind are rarely punished.

????? is prison camp slang that has infiltrated everyday speech. It means "to rat on someone," "to give someone up," as in the phrase: ??? ????? ??? ?????? (they gave him up to the cops). In everyday speech, it can mean "to give someone away." ? ????? ??????? ??? ??????? ? ????????? ??? ?????? ? ???????? ?? ??? ???? ????????. ?? ??? ?????? ???? ?????. (On his birthday, I invited his friends to a restaurant for a surprise party. But his friends gave me away.) In this context ????? is used somewhat jokingly; it would be more correct to say: ??? ?????? ?????? ????.

?????????? is another useful word to know. Depending on the context, it can mean "to frame someone," "to expose someone" or "to put someone in an awkward situation." You could translate the film title "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" as "??? ????????? ??????? ????????" It's clear in this context that the accusation is unjust or evidence is fabricated. You could also say: ?? ???? ?????????! ?? ?????? ????? ? ??????????, ? ???? ??????, ??? ??? ? ????. (He put me in an awkward situation. He spent the evening with his lover, but he told his wife that he was with me.) The awkwardness comes from trying to guess what he told his wife you had for dinner, so your stories match up.

Or you can say in Russian, as in English, ?? ?????? ??? ?? ???? ?????? (he did that behind my back).

Strong words to describe this kind of rat are ????????? (betrayer) and ???? (enemy). You can also call him either ?? ???? or ?????? (emphasis on the first syllable), depending on the level and nature of the betrayal. ?? ???? -- ?? ???? means "he's not your friend," "he's no friend of yours." ?? ???? ?????? is much stronger and means "he's your enemy." You could also say ??????????????? (someone who wishes you harm), ????????? (pest, in Soviet times "a saboteur") or ???????? (deceiver, betrayer, traitor).

Or you can simply call him ???? (back-stabber, literally, a snake). If you feel like a bit of high drama, you can say: ? ??????? ???? ?? ????? ?????! (I warmed the snake on my breast!) It will be clear that once the snake warmed up, he bit you. Whatever the language, that's what snakes do.

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