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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When the Unwritten Is Better Than the Written

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По понятиям: by the code of criminals, by one's own laws or rules

If you ever delve into one of those big tomes on Russian history and culture, you will quickly come across what one author calls дилемма "по закону или по справедливости" (the dilemma of "by law or by justice"). This issue seems to be right up there in the Russian thinker's top 10 favorite obsessions. The dilemma is the gap between true justice and what is meted out by the courts. It's not a uniquely Russian distinction; all over the world people question the justice of their judicial systems. But in Russia, people have tended to prefer their sense of справедливость to the law's sense. It's not new: The expression "где суд, там и неправда" (where there is a court, there is no truth) has been around for at least several centuries.

Not that Russians think the law is always and entirely bad, mind you. Observing it is always a good idea, especially if you are законопослушный (law-abiding). You can say informally: Мы всё делаем по закону (We do everything by the law). Or you can say with gravity: Наша фирма всегда действует в строгом соответствии с законом (Our company always acts in strict compliance with the law). Just step over the people rolling around the floor in hysterical laughter as you exit.

In Russian, if you want real justice, head for the word справедливость. This is when the bad guy gets caught and punished, the innocent are set free and when the truth of a situation has been determined and acted upon. This kind of justice can exhibit features of tough love; a common expression applied to judges, parents and other authority figures is: Он суров, но справедлив (he is tough, but fair).

In English we might use truth, justice or fairness when rendering various expressions using справедливость and related words. For example, По справедливости говоря, он неплохой художник (In all fairness, he's not a bad artist). Or: Я не могу оспаривать справедливость его слов (I can't question the truth of his words).

In addition to these notions of justice, there's also по понятиям (literally, "according to understandings"). As far as I can tell, originally понятия were a code of behavior among criminals. One source defined them as: свод законов поведения и морали криминального мира (a code of laws of behavior and morality for the criminal world).

Now this can refer to a code of behavior and morality specific to a particular group, with the understanding that this code might be at odds with закон (the law) and справедливость (justice) in the common sense shared by most people. If someone says: Они действуют не по закону, а по понятиям, it means they aren't abiding by the law but have taken the law into their own hands. I suppose that in some theoretical, pure language universe, that individual code of law and justice might be finer than what the courts or the rest of us operate by, but in practice it never is.

This can be a bit difficult to understand and harder to translate. Take, for example, this headline: Борьба с парковкой "по понятиям" -- раунд второй. For clarity's sake, this might be rendered: Fighting Illegal Parking -- Round Two. Or this: Самое строгое наказание для нашего человека -- это заставить его жить не по понятиям, а по закону (The worst punishment for our citizen is making him live by the law, not by his notions of the law). Or this: Фирма подписывает договор по закону, а платит по понятиям (The company signs a contract according to the law but pays according to its own unwritten rules).

Theoretically this might mean that they pay more than the contract stipulates, but I wouldn't count on it.

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