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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Very Tough Principle for Some to Grasp

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? ????????: in principle; basically; yes, but...

After a totally nonscientific observation of -- or rather, listening to -- foreigners learning to speak Russian, I've come to the conclusion that one of the first phrases we start using is ? ???????? (in principle). Of course, there are individual preferences and learning curves. If you enter Russian life via dinner parties, you're likely to start using ????-???? (just a little bit) very quickly, if only to protect yourself from overly hospitable hosts. And within three days, one foreign friend who drives in Moscow mastered the word ??????? (literally: livestock, figuratively: creep), along with truly excellent Muscovite intonation when screaming at the city's mad drivers.

So why do we pick up ? ???????? so quickly? I think because we hear it a lot, and because it's such a useful, weaselly phrase. It conveys "yes, but": ? ????????, ? ? ???? ????????, ?? ? ???? ???? ??? ????????? ??????????. (In principle, I agree with you, but I have a number of reservations.) It's a phrase that leaves all your options open: ? ????????, ? ? ????????????? ????? ?? ? ????? ?? ???????, ?? ????? ??? ??? ??????????. (In principle, I'd love to go to the concert with you, but let's talk again.) And when a company rep tells you, ? ????????, ?? ???????? ? ????????? ????????? (In principle, we agree to the terms of the contract), you quickly learn that the opera ain't over till the fat lady sings. The devil is truly in the details.

? ???????? shouldn't be confused with ?? ????????, a much stronger phrase that means "on principle." ?? ?? ?????? ?????????? ????? ?? ????????. (He doesn't read Moscow newspapers on principle.)

???????? (principles) fall into the category of Very Important Russian Values. They are good things to have and maintain, both at the individual level and at the state level. Alas, they have spun off a number of words and phrases that can be devilishly difficult to translate.

Sometimes our linguistic "principles" match up. ???????? ?????? ??????? -- ?????????????? ?????? ??? ??????. (Getting Zakayev extradited is a matter of principle for Russia.) ? ????? ??? ????? ???, ??? ??? ??????? ????????????????, ???????????, ??????????????. (I knew him for years, and he was always uncompromising, independent and principled.)

But with a sentence like: ?? -- ?????????????? ?????????, you don't want to call him a principled pessimist; in English it sounds like he is a pessimist who happens to be of strong moral fiber. Try: He's a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist.

Sometimes the Russian ???????????????? (literally, adherence to principles) is close to the English notion of integrity. ?? -- ??????? ????????? ? ???????????????? ? ????????. (He is a model of honesty and integrity in politics.)

In other cases we express ???????????????? as something fundamental or basic. ??? ???????? ??????? ??????????????? ?????????????? ?????????, ???????????? ? ????????. (This murder requires a fundamental rethinking of what's going on in society.)

And sometimes that ubiquitous English adjective "key" comes in handy: ??????????? ??????????? ????? ??? ??????? ????? -- ?????????????? ?????? ? ??????? ??????????????? ???????? ? ??????. (Providing affordable housing for young families is key to improving the demographic situation in Russia.)

In other cases, the principled stance is what we call a moral position in English: ?? ?????????????? ??????? -- ??????? ?? ???? ??????. (He's very moral: he never pays bribes.)

But when we say ?????????????? ?????????? (an agreement in principle), it gets tricky. Sometimes it means the big issues have been decided, and now it's just a matter of dotting the "i"s; sometimes it means "yes, but": ?????? ? ???? ???????? ??????????????? ?????????? ? ???????? ? ?????? ??????????? ??????????? ?? ?????????? ?????. (Russia and Iran agreed in principle to form a joint venture for enriching uranium.)

Here it means: Don't hold your breath.

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