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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Enough to Make You Think Twice

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????????: a "D" student, a slacker, a naughty person, a screw-up

If one is the loneliest number and three's a crowd -- what's two? In Russian, ??? (two) is a fairly simple little number, but its spin offs don't double the pleasure and fun. They make double trouble.

??? seems to be a kind of stand-in for "just a little bit." For example, you can say: ?? ????? ? ???? ????? ?? ????. (He lives just down the street/around the corner -- literally "two steps" -- from me.) Or: ? ??????? ? ???? ??????. (I'll explain briefly -- literally "in two words"). Or: ????? ??? ?? ??? ?????/??? ??????? (May I talk to you for just a sec, literally "two words/two minutes.") You could, of course, say: ? ???? ?????? ????? ??? ??????/???? ????? (I'll be ready in three/five minutes), but that's already closer to an accurate prediction of the time it will take you to finish primping. Anything with ??? is just a way of saying "in a bit."

When someone can't speak coherently -- out of nervousness, confusion or general incompetence -- you say: ???? ???? ??????? ?? ????? (literally, "he can't put two words together").

But when you can do something quickly and easily, you say: ? ??? ????? ? ??? ?????. (I'll clean it all up in a snap.) English has some similar "two" idioms, but they are rather dated. When was the last time you said, "I'll clean it up in two shakes (of a lamb's tail)"?

In Russian you can easily double things by saying ? ??? ???? ?????? or half things with ? ??? ???? ??????, although I personally regard the latter expression as a trap for the weary translator. How many times have I sleepily typed "two times less" and then howled when I reread my translation? ????????????? ????????? ????? ? ??? ???? ?????? ????????? should be: "Russian drugs cost half as much as imports" and not "two times less" or "twice as little."

When I make gaffs like that, my translation gets a ?????? (a "D," i.e., two on a scale of one to five) and I'm ???????? (a D student). Although these terms come from the school room, you can use them in virtually any situation: ?? ???????? ?? ??????. (His speech was a "D.")

?????? should not be confused with ??????, a word you might find in Soviet literature. ?????? was a 2 kopek coin, but it was worth its weight in gold, since it was the only coin that pay phones would take. Once I found a hoard of them in a drawer and nearly wept from nostalgia. And ire: By the time I found them, they weren't even worth much as scrap metal.

Another curious expression is ?? ???, ?? ??????? (literally, "not two and not one and a half") which we express as "neither fish nor fowl." It proves, once again, that Russian organizes its folk sayings by rhythm and rhyme while English uses alliteration -- and that both languages have rather idiotic idioms.

?????? (twice) pops up in the common equation ?????? ??? (two times two). The expression ??? ?????? ??? used to mean -- and sometimes still means -- that whatever is being discussed is as certain as the sun rising and as clear as day. But today it is often used as ?????? ??? ?????? ??? (as simple as two times two).

???? is the collective numeral you use for people or for nouns that only exist in the plural: ???? ?????? (two men), ???? ????? (two days, i.e., 24-hour periods). These are constructions English-speakers are likely to mess up, since often these Russian plurals are hard-wired as English singles in our subconscious. For example, if you have two driver's licenses (?????), in Russian you have ???? ???????????? ????. And if you have two Zhigulis, you need to say: ? ???? ???? "???????".

With ???? I am almost always ????????.

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