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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It's Awkward in Everyone's Language

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??????????????: condolences

It is always hard to find words of sympathy. Everything seems heinously banal or inappropriately personal, overly formal or far too colloquial. You wish to commiserate but fear you are imposing; you want to offer support and comfort, but worry you may be causing more anguish. Regardless of nationality, we all struggle in our own languages to find the "right words." And it is even harder when we struggle to find the right words in a foreign language and culture, where we risk saying something that is inappropriate or even insulting.

In Russia, as in English-speaking countries, culture has given us a helping hand, providing us with a number of standard phrases and words. They may be somewhat ritualized, but at least we know they are culturally appropriate.

In Russian, as in English, one tactfully tries not to use the word ?????? (death). Instead you might say or write: ? ??????, ??? ? ??? ??????? ????/????????? (I heard that you have suffered a deep sorrow/misfortune.) Or: ?? ??????? ??????? ??????. (I was sorry to hear of your great loss.) In a letter of condolence you might write formally: ??? ???????? ??????? ??????. (I was sorry to hear of your terrible loss.) Or acknowledge that the loss was irreplaceable: ???? ????????? ??????? ? ????? ????????????? ??????. (I was saddened to hear of your irreparable loss.)

The most common and appropriate expression of sympathy in Russian is an offer of your condolences: ??????? ??? ???????? ??????????????. (Please accept my deepest sympathy.) Or you could say: ? ????? ?? ???????? ???? ????????? ??????????????. (I would like to extend my sincere condolences.) There is also a verb, ????????????? (literally "to grieve together with"), but it is very rarely used, even in formal correspondence: ? ??? ??????????. (I offer you my condolences.)

Unfortunately, you can't easily say in Russian what we most commonly say in English: I'm sorry. In English it conveys profound regret over what has happened and a sense of shared pain and grief. In English-language films badly translated into Russian, you can hear the travesty of "????????" for "I'm sorry," which either sounds as if the person is apologizing for the death or asking to be excused from the room: -- ? ??????? ???? ??? ??? ????. -- ????????. (-- Last year my husband died. -- Excuse me.) The closest way to express this in Russian is ? ??? ?????????? ?? ???? ???? (I want to say how sorry I am from the bottom of my heart, literally, "I sympathize with all my soul"). You could also say: ??? ??? ???? (I'm so regretful), but since you could use this in Russian for misfortunes of far less magnitude, it usually sounds woefully inadequate.

If you want to let someone know that you share their grief, you might say: ? ????? ????????? ?? ???. (I'm so distressed for you.) Or the formal: ? ???????? ???? ??????. (I share your sorrow.) Or the very formal: ? ??????? ?????? ? ????. (I mourn with you.) Theoretically, you could also say: ? ??????? ???? ???? (I understand your grief), but Russians -- like English-speakers -- hesitate to say this, recognizing that grief and loss cannot ever be truly shared or understood.

In Russian, it is appropriate to simply express horror or sadness. ????? ????! (What a tragedy.) ??? ????????! (This is so sad.) ????? ??????? ??????! (What a terrible loss.). Or you might commiserate by sharing your own feelings: ? ?? ???? ? ??? ????????. (I can't believe it.)

If you are sure this would be appropriate, you might say: ? ?????? ?? ???. (I pray for you.) Or you can simply confess that words fail you: ? ?? ???? ????? ???? ????????. (I can't find words of comfort.)

Perhaps the most common Russian expression of commiseration, and the most welcome, is also the most simple: ??? ? ???? ??? ??????? (How can I help you?)

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