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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Whatever the Case

Как бы то ни было: be that as it may, despite everything, in any case

So here I am, dripping sweat onto a desk covered with books, notebooks and papers, splotching highlighted texts and fluorescent Post-its. The dulcet sound of a jackhammer floats through the open window, bringing with it a fine shower of construction dust. My dog lies under the desk, panting. My goal is to finish my work and make tracks for my cool, shady, quiet dacha. Filled with determination, I say: Как бы не– (No, that’s not right.) Как ни– (Wait, there’s a то in there someplace.) Как то не– (Or maybe it’s что.) Что ни бы– After a few more bleated attempts, I showcase my formidable knowledge of Russian obscenities instead.

But after a couple of hours with dictionaries, I’ve sorted it out. Here’s the exasperated expat’s guide to all those не, ни, бы, то, что and как expressions.

Как бы не plus the past tense of a verb is used to express fear or concern that something will happen. The confusion here is the different tenses used in Russian and English, which if it weren’t so bloody hot, I’d explain, and which you, if you weren’t sweating like a pig, would pretend to care about. Here’s an example instead: Им предстоит обмен квартиры, и она боится, как бы не сорвалось (They’re going to trade apartments, and she’s afraid that the deal will fall through).

You might also hear the emphatic expression Как бы не так! It’s the Russian equivalent of “no way, Jose”: Неужели вы думаете, что этим всё кончилось? Как бы не так. (Do you really think that was the end of it? The hell it was.)

Then we have the ни expressions. These became clear to me when I finally read every word of a long dictionary entry. (Note to self: Read dictionaries more often.) Midway down the page, I discovered that in certain grammatical constructions — You really want to hear them? I didn’t think so — ни indicates action that will occur or continue under any circumstances. Think of ни as the “no matter what” word. Что ни говори, а ехать придётся (No matter what you say, you’ve got to go).

This brings us to как бы то ни было, which means “no matter what the facts of the matter are.” For example, you rattle off a list of all your apartment’s drawbacks, like the jackhammer and dust. But then you sigh and conclude: Как бы то ни было, квартира далеко не самая плохая в Москве (Despite everything, my apartment is far from the worst one in Moscow).

Similar to this is как ни крути, which might be translated as “no matter which way you look at it”: Как ни крути, а алкоголь и табак — это всё-таки вредные привычки (Any way you slice it, alcohol and tobacco are nasty habits).

And then finally we come to what I was searching for: во что бы то ни стало. Jeez, do you think they could stick a few more words in there? Как бы то ни было (in any case), my dictionary points out that стать in this context refers to the cost of something, so the expression means a figurative “no matter what it costs.” Во что бы то ни стало, я закончу эту рубрику и поеду с собачкой на дачу (No matter what it takes, I’ll finish this column and head out for the dacha with my dog).

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