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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Have a Happy, er, You Know What I Mean

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??????????!: Congratulations (ironic or sincere)

Holiday greetings and congratulations are much simpler in Russian than in English. You take the basic verb ??????????? (to congratulate), add the appropriate pronoun ??? or ???? (you, either formally or informally) and then the occasion: ? ???? ???????? (on your birthday), ? ?????????? (on the holiday), ? ???????? (on your award), ? ??????? ??????? (on defending your thesis), ? ?????????? (on your new home). You can also throw in a selection of adverbs or adverbial phrases: ?????? (warmly), ???????? (sincerely), ???????? (with all my heart), ?? ????? ?????? (from the bottom of my heart). Any kind of anniversary or birthday is ????????? or ??????. Dates are nicely made into nouns like ??????????? (10th anniversary). The celebrant is ??????. Life's a dream -- until you start to translate.

Your colleague tells a business associate: ?? ?? ???? ???? ??????????? ??? ? ???????????? ?????. And you translate: We congratulate you in a heartfelt way on the 10th year of your company's existence. Hmm -- that can't be right. In English we don't use "congratulate" like the Russian ???????????. How about: Please accept our heartfelt congratulations on your company's 10th anniversary. ??????????? ??? ? ????????? ???? could be either Congratulations on the birth of your son or, more commonly, Congratulations! You've got a son! ?????????? ? ?????????? ????????? becomes Merry Christmas. ? ?????????? ?????? could be Happy Victory Day, but in formal correspondence you'd be more likely to say: Accept our best wishes on Victory Day.

?????? is also a problem in English. For anyone under the age of 12, this is a birthday girl/boy, but you really can't say that of, say, Maya Plisetskaya on her 80th birthday. If someone were to say ??????????? ??????? ? ?????? ... (literally "We congratulate the birthday girl and wish her ... "), try putting in the name and cut to the chase: On her birthday we'd like to wish Ms. Plisetskaya ...

And then there's the ironic use of ???????????. Say it's your birthday, and following that dreadful Russian tradition in which the ?????? is responsible for the party, you have just spent two days shopping, cleaning and cooking. Exhausted, you are carrying a four-layer cake you spent all day making into the dining room, when you trip over the cat and the cake ends up on the ceiling. Your significant other will watch this and say with deadly irony: ??????????! In English this might be: Nice going, butterfingers!

After you scrape the cake off the ceiling and receive your guests, your Russian friends will start a sentence with ????? ???? (I wish you). At this point you can sit back and enjoy a long, touching and creative list of good things meant especially for you. ????? ???? ???????? ???????? (I wish you good health), ??????? ?? ???? ?????????? (success in everything you do), ??????? (joy), ??????? (happiness). Sometimes you will be wished ?????????? ??????? -- professional success in the sense of creative productivity. I suppose you could wish an accountant ?????????? ???????, but be careful not to translate this as "creative accounting."

If you are a woman, somewhere in the list of good wishes will inevitably be the phrase ???????? ??????? (woman's happiness), which I have been seeking to define for decades now. It seems to be a combination of having a loving spouse (who doesn't drink too much and washes his own socks), a healthy and happy extended family, and a comfortable home. In Georgia my query once elicited a 15-minute story -- that is, a long Georgian toast -- about a woman whose husband cheated on her constantly, but whom she loved with slavish devotion, suggesting that for that speaker "woman's happiness" was synonymous with "full frontal lobotomy." In any case, as far as I can tell, you could wish a man ???????? ??????? (man's happiness), but it probably would not mean having a loving spouse and happy, healthy children. It may, however, involve a paradise where no man washes his socks ever again.

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