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What Makes Russians Happy Posted by on Aug 9, 2011 in Culture, language, Russian life

I’d like to thank Jarrod for the inspiring comment on our Facebook page and to Bob for sending me the infographics that started it all. Guys, you rock!

A while ago one of the blog readers, Bob, e-mailed me the infographics you see at the top of the post. Honestly, while I really liked the picture, I already had a bunch of posts lined up and decided «отложить статью в долгий ящик» [to shelf the article].

Then a few days ago I picked up a copy of Jane McGonigal’s “Reality Is Broken” «в местной библиотеке» [at a local library]. «Отличная книга, кстати!» [By the way, it’s a great read].

To make the long story short, reading about happiness reminded me of the infographics and led to my asking a question «Что вам нужно для счастья» which I translated as “What do you need to be happy”.

Jarrod brought up an excellent point by asking why I translated it this way instead of “for happiness”.

Would «дословный перевод» [word-for-word translation] be the best option here? Or should I use «литературный перевод» [idiomatic translation]? As a non-native speaker (of either Russian or English), how important is it to you to have a translation that is a close formal equivalent even when a more idiomatic form exists? These aren’t just idle questions since your feedback shapes this blog.

But here’s the kicker. Did you see the title of the infographics? It’s called “What makes Russians happy”. Now, how would you translate this sentence into Russian? Try it now, but don’t peek…


Did you write down your answer? Ok, the way this particular research was announced in Russian media was «Чего россиянам не хватает для счастья». Wow, that’s like totally different, isn’t it?

The phrase «чего не хватает» [what’s missing] was translated as “what makes”. Why?

I think it’s because Russian language has a lot of phrases that use «не» without sounding negative (at least to the Russian ear):

  • When making plans – «Не пойти-ли нам в кино» [lit. Why don’t we go to a movie]
  • When hurrying to work – «Не пропустить бы автобус» [ lit. Wouldn’t want to miss the bus]
  • When asking for directions – «Не подскажете, как пройти к музею искусств» [lit. Wouldn’t you tell me how to get to the art museum]
  • When asking what time it is – «Не знаете, который час?» [lit. Wouldn’t you know what time it is]

This brings to mind an article I read last year in one of the glossy magazines. In it one of the researchers is quoted saying

Among Westerners, focusing on one’s negative feelings tends to impair well-being, but among Russians, that is not the case.

Speaking of well-being and «счастье», what do Russians need to be happy? Turns out, «большинству респондентов не хватает денег, любви и уверенности в будущем» [the majority of respondents need money, love and confidence in the future].

Other answers included

«Стабильность» [stability] – I was surprised to see this as a separate answer. Apparently confidence in the future does not imply stability.

«Возможность жить там, где мне бы хотелось» [Opportunity to live where I want] – my Russian friends are always surprised at how often I move. Moving to a different town or a different part of the country used to be very difficult and looks like for some people in Russia it remained so.

«Квадратные метры» [square meters] – are you puzzled? «квадратные метры» refers to the problem of «маленькая жилплощадь» [insufficient living space], a common problem since apartments tend to be small.

«Возможность заняться любимым делом» [opportunity to do what I love] – this seems to be a problem common in the US as well, at least judging by all the self-help books on the subject of “making money doing what you love”.

My favorite answer is «чегото не хватает, но ощущению счастья это не мешает» [lit. something is missing, but it doesn’t interfere with the feeling of happiness]. First of all, it’s a wonderful realization that having everything isn’t a prerequisite to being happy. And then, there are two «не»s that add the unique Russian twist to the otherwise rather bland “something is missing, but I am happy” translation.

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  1. PaulS:

    Taking a look at another Russian word ‘Я’, I’m so used to this sort of sound meaning ‘yes’ in other languages i.e. German. I’m only just getting used to thinking about sounds in a different way when learning Russian.

    But back onto the article. I think it’s interesting to see different countries opinions on the subject. Right now for me, it’d be paying off my credit card 😉

    • yelena:

      @PaulS Lol, Paul, right on about “я” 🙂 As for the happiness thing, for me personally it’d be paying off all my student loans 😉

  2. PaulS:

    Haha 🙂 Yes I remember having to pay that off and my graduate loan too!

  3. Rick Haller:

    While not as common, we might say “Why not go to a movie?” which is similar I think. The double negative is a no-no, though. I understand it is fairly common in Russian.

  4. CaitieCat:

    I would definitely have translated it as you have – “What makes Russians happy?” – as I think it much more succinctly captures the spirit of the utterance than “What do Russians need for happiness?” The latter sounds awkward and non-native to me.

    An alternative would be “What do Russians need to be happy?”, but given the strictures of a headline register, I’d argue that the shorter version would be much the better choice.

  5. Lois:

    Я всегда за литературный перевод, так звучит лучше. It’s easy to translate literally, but then it doesn’t always make sense. As a native English speaker and a teacher of English to non-native speakers, I emphasize both to my Russian-speaking students. I allow them to translate literally for a while, but eventually demand the more idiomatic version (although usually it’s going from English to Russian rather than the other way around) because I want to make sure they understand the meaning of the text.

    As for the use of negatives compared to the use of positive expressions, you could do a whole post on that. As a learner, it’s something one has to realize is quite different and has a completely different nuance in Russian than in English.

    Thanks for all your posts. You’re a great cultural informant!

  6. David:

    I am glad to have my confusion about the negative affirmed. When reading Russian, I am often uncertain whether the meaning is meant to be positive or negative. Counting up the negatives doesn’t work. I guess you just have to know.

  7. KristaF:

    I think it’s definitely always important to find the best English approximation of Russian phrases. Sure, you could have translated it as, “what do Russians need for happiness,” but to me that sounds a little awkward in English.
    By the way, I love this blog! It keeps me thinking in Russian while I’m on a break from my studies. 🙂

  8. PaulS:

    I think in English it’s accepted that a double negative is actually a positive.

    I also like this blog, I have no real contact with Russian speakers, it’s always written in emails. Maybe I need to find my local Russian community 🙂

  9. Minority:

    I love this infographics, it looks like a sun.)
    My answer is “Something is missing but I am happy”, I am lucky one in love with my job. And I’m pretty sure everything besides that is coming soon. 🙂

  10. Rick Haller:

    From Wikipedia: “In most logics and some languages, double negatives cancel one another and produce an affirmative sense; in other languages, doubled negatives intensify the negation.”


    “Stylistically, in English, double negatives can sometimes be used for understated affirmation (e.g. “I’m not feeling bad” vs. “I’m feeling good”). The rhetorical term for this is litotes.”

    Or “Not so bad.” or “Could be worse.” The latter feels sort of Russian 😉

    And then there is “so-so” which is translated as “так себе” in Russian.

    And “nothing to write home about” which might be “нормально”?

    And finally, “not so hot”.

  11. Daria:

    Hello everybody! It’s a remarkable blog)
    My english is not so well, unfortunetly. I didn’t understand^

    And “nothing to write home about” which might be “нормально”?

    нормально is translated like “normally”. What does “nothing to write home about” mean? Is it an english idiom?

    • yelena:

      @Daria Дарья, “nothing to write home about” is an idiom. However, I wouldn’t translate it as “нормально”, but rather as “ничего особенного”. For example, “The food at this much-advertised restaurant was nothing to write home about” – Еда в этом разрекламированном ресторане была так себе, ничего особенного.

  12. Rick Haller:

    Hi, Daria! “Nothing to write home about” is indeed an English idiom, or perhaps an American English idiom. It means “nothing special”, when you are talking about news, and “not particularly good or interesting’ mediocre” when you are talking about something like a movie, or a restaurant, et cetera.

    It may come from a custom in the pioneer days when people would leave home to find a new, better place to live, almost always in the west. If they actually found such a place, they would write home and sometimes relatives would come to join them.

    Sending a letter was a big deal in those days, so you didn’t send one unless it was something important.

    So, perhaps “нормально” is a good translation if you mean it in the first sense, not sure about the second sense, maybe “mediocre”, i.e. “посредственный”?

  13. Daria:

    Thank you, Yelena!

    Thank you, Rick Haller! Tell me please, meaning “mediocre” uses only when we talking about a movie, a restaurent, et cetera? And “nothing special” for news only?

  14. Rick Haller:

    Actually, Daria, now that I think about it, they are pretty much synonyms with slight differences in “tone”.

    “Mediocre” is a somewhat upper-middle class, semi-arrogant word and “nothing..” is more folksie, gentler and humorous.

    Also, “mediocre” is a word that you will find in the dictionary, while “nothing to write home about” is an idiom.

    Both “mediocre” and “nothing…” imply “boring”, something you didn’t enjoy or would recommend to someone else.

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