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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Searching in Vain

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???!: You shouldn't have! You should have!

Every once in a while, I hear a common phrase or word and suddenly wonder: Where did that come from? And how would I translate it? Out come the dictionaries, tomes of Russian literature, monographs and reference books. Four hours later, I am either thoroughly confused or totally enlightened and wish, for the zillionth time, that I had taken up French instead of Russian.

Such was my plight over the simple word ???, which dictionaries define as "in vain" or "to no purpose." It is the participle form of the verb ?????, which means "to see" or "to know." So how did the meaning evolve from "seeing" to "pointless"? It seems that in the past it meant something like "to look around idly" and then by the late 19th century came to mean "doing something suddenly or without purpose." ????? ? ? ??? ?? ????? -- ??? ? ??????? ? ??? ?? ?????? -- ? ?????? ?? ? ??????? ? ?????. (I came to see her on business -- I never visit her without a reason -- and found her reading.)

The problem when translating this cursed three-letter word is that, unless your everyday conversation sounds like something out of a Jane Austen novel, you probably would never use the phrase "in vain." You certainly wouldn't use it when translating a phrase like: ?? ??? ?? ?????????? ? ???! (You didn't call him? You should have!) Or this phrase, in which ??? is sung out in an exaggerated scolding tone: ?? ???-???? ????? ?? ??? ?????????? ???! (You've decided to go to the party after all? You shouldn't!)

In other cases, translation depends on the context. ?? ??? ?? ??????? ??? ?????????. (We didn't work all those years for nothing.) ??? ? ??? ??????. (Why on earth did I start this?) ?? ??????? ???? ???! (Don't waste your time and effort!) ??? ?????????? ???????? ? ???, ??? ??? ????????? ??????. (You shouldn't accuse the democrats of selling out to the West.)

A synonym for ??? is ????????, which has also had a circuitous evolutionary past. It originally meant "quickly and unexpectedly," with the connotation of something unpleasant happening out of the blue. In literature you can still find this older meaning in the phrase ????????? ??????, which meant "sudden death." But over time the notion of something bad happening by chance mutated to the notion of something done for no purpose. ?? ???????? ?????? ?????. ??? ??? ????? ????? ?????? ????????. (You wasted your time correcting the text. The editor is going to read it anyway.) It can also be used to mean something done in error: ??? ???????? ???????? ??? ? ?????????????. ?? ?????????? ??????? ???????. (They were wrong to accuse him of fraud. He's an absolutely honest person.)

Another phrase that has similar meaning is ??????? (literally "on empty"). This is most commonly used with notions of spending money for naught: ?????????? ?????? ?????? ?????? ???????. (British authorities are pouring money down the drain.) But you can also find it in reference to anything wasted: ????????????? ????????? ????? ???????. (The government wasted a month.) It makes a nice, succinct title: ??? ??????? (A Year Wasted).

You can also use other adverbs to describe pointless and useless activities: Try ?????????? (useless), ???????????? (senseless), ?????????? (pointless) or the rather bookish ?????? (in vain). I'm very fond of ??????????, pronounced with each syllable accented as if you are pounding nails in a coffin. ? ?? ????????? ? ??????????? ? ?? ????????. ???-??-???-??! (I didn't talk to my boss and I don't plan to. It's a no-win situation!) Or try ??????? (serving no purpose): ??????? ??? ??????! (There's no point in doing it.) Or ?? ? ???? (leading to nothing): ?? ? ???? ???????? ? ???. ?? ?? ?????????! (Why waste my breath talking to him? He won't change!)

And then you'll hear: ??? ?? ??? ???????! (You're wrong!)

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