Russian Language Blog

Could I get a volunteer from the audience? Posted by on Sep 5, 2012 in language, Soviet Union

A couple months ago, I agreed to do some volunteer work for my sister’s church. I’m not religious, but my sister and her husband are католики (“Roman Catholics”), and they requested some help making art for “Vacation Bible School” — i.e., a week-long summer program of religious education for children at the church, including my пятилетний племянник (“five-year-old nephew”), who was in the youngest group of kids. (He has just entered the детский сад, “kindergarten,” at the church’s school.)

Anyway, my primary task was to create a large знамя (“banner”) illustrating the семь таинств (“seven sacraments”) of Catholicism. To be more specific, the “banner” was a белая простыня (“white bedsheet”) на которой я кистью нарисовал типа аллегорический пейзаж (“on which I painted a landscape that was, like, all allegorical and stuff”). So there was a ручей (“tiny river; brook; creek”) standing for крещение (“baptism”), a костёр (“campfire; bonfire”) representing the Святой дух (“Holy Spirit”), etc. You get the idea.

But I bring all this up because, as I said, it was a volunteer effort — and I realized I wasn’t 100% sure how best to say “volunteer” in Russian, at least in this context. In fact, there are various translations, but selecting the best one can be tricky.

To start with, if you check an English-Russian translation dictionary for “volunteer,” you will often find the adjective добровольный and the noun доброволец. As an adjective for “voluntary,” добровольный is often a suitable translation — etymologically it suggests “kind will,” and the English “volunteer” itself comes from the Latin voluntās, meaning “free will.”

But there’s a problem with the noun доброволец — it’s a bit too specific, and usually means “someone who voluntarily joins the military (instead of being drafted).” Often it’s even more specific than that, and implies “someone who voluntarily joins the military during wartime, when there’s an imminent danger of being sent into combat.” So, although the U.S. military has been all-volunteer since the 1970s, доброволец doesn’t necessarily apply to peacetime enlistees. In short, if you try to translate “a volunteer” with доброволец, in most cases you’ll be wrong!

And there’s another problem: добровольный doesn’t have a derived verb. So how do you translate “to be a volunteer” or “to volunteer”? And just how do you render the English noun “a volunteer”?

In many cases, you can use a different verb modified by some adverb such as добровольно (“voluntarily”), or by an adjectival clause that functions adverbially. For instance:

добровольно заниматься/заняться делом (“to voluntarily engage in an activity”)
добровольно работать (“to voluntarily work”)
добровольно предлагать/предложить помощь или услуги (“to voluntarily offer help or services”)

And to express “a volunteer,” in many contexts the best solution is to use a construction that means something like “one who voluntarily works”

Человек, который добровольно работает. (“A person who works voluntarily”)
Тот, кто добровольно предложил свои услуги (“One who voluntarily offered his services”)

But добровольно isn’t the only way to express the idea of “voluntarily.” You could also use adverbs such бесплатно (“for free”) or бескорыстно (“not for the purposes of profit”):

Я бескорыстно работаю в библиотеке. (“I’m a volunteer at the library,” lit. “I work unpaid at…”)

The adjective бескорыстный deserves a closer look. Sometimes it can mean “unselfishlessly,” with the corresponding noun бескорыстие, “unselfishness.” The root noun корысть basically means “profit; gain,” and can be neutral in connotation. But the corresponding adjective корыстный is often very pejorative — meaning not simply “seeking profit,” but something more like “lusting for profit”. So жадный (“greedy”) would be a rough equivalent, and the adjective “mercenary” could be a good translation for корыстный. But the antonym бескорыстный doesn’t necessarily have moral implications; it just means that you’re not expecting to get paid!

In other contexts, you can express the idea of “voluntarily done for the common good” with an adjective such as общественный (“public”) or the compound общественно-полезный (“publicly beneficial/useful”). And, as I said, sometimes using an adjectival phrase adverbially will sound better than using just an adverb.

One such phrase is the Sovietism на общественных началах, “on a public/social basis.” (By itself, на началах can often be translated “on the basis [of].”) Alternatively, you could use a phrase with основа, which literally means “base/basis.” So на добровольной основе is “on a voluntary basis.”

In certain scenarios, you could instead use в целях благотворительности, “for the purpose of charity.” Like на началах, в целях is a useful construction to know — literally, it’s “in the goals/aims,” but usually you’d translate it as “for the purpose [of]” or “on the basis of.” But keep in mind that благотворительность does mean “charity” in the “alms for the poor” sense.” So Я работаю в целях благотворительности is correct if you’re volunteering at a soup-kitchen for the homeless, but perhaps isn’t suitable if you’re a karate champ who volunteers as an unpaid self-defense instructor for middle-class women — which certainly qualifies as общественно-полезный (“publicly beneficial,”) but it’s not “charity.”

Finally, no discussion of добровольная работа (“volunteer work”) would be complete without mention of субботник — the Soviet institution/custom of “volunteering” on Saturdays to pick up litter or put a fresh coat of paint on children’s playground equipment. I use the ironic quote marks deliberately, because while the субботник practice may have begun with the very best intentions, and in the early years of the USSR, some citizens did it with enthusiasm, many Russians will attest that over the years, it degenerated into a running joke: no one wanted to do it, people found excuses to avoid it, the work was done carelessly — and it was seldom or never “voluntary.”

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  1. Delia Valente:

    Rob! What a great post! and a nice topic too – there is no such word. Most Russian speakers here in the States say я волантирю which is another good example of Runglish. I would say “на общественных началах”. It sounds stylistically neutral to me.

  2. Russel:

    Rob. Only one thing – you dig TOO MUCH into it for a simple word 🙂
    Delia. Better don’t say “на общественных началах” cause you’ll sound Brezhnev-style 🙂
    Hа общественных началах sounds like you come to a comparatively big organisation, there you are given a shovel and sent to build Kuzbas or Dneproges.

  3. Stas:

    IMHO, in the last 20-30 years you can safely say волонтёр for the noun volunteer.

    And everything that referred to the субботник in the later years was considered доброволно-принудительным as funny unofficial term.