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    The Russian Tongue: Minding your Russian Ps and Qs

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    The mother bear in a children’s poem by Emma Moshkovskaya complained about the rudeness of her furry son: (Izvol…/ Pozvol…/Have long been moth-eaten!/ Poor pozhaluista, Whatever is left of it?) Well, пожалуйста is still alive and kicking, but it often causes confusion for English speakers and Russian speakers learning English alike.

    The mother bear in a children’s poem by Emma Moshkovskaya complained about the rudeness of her furry son: “ИЗВОЛЬ…/ ПОЗВОЛЬ… /Их давно уж съела моль! Бедное ПОЖАЛУЙСТА,/ Что от него осталось-то?” (Izvol…/ Pozvol…/Have long been moth-eaten!/ Poor pozhaluista, Whatever is left of it?) Well, пожалуйста is still alive and kicking, but it often causes confusion for English speakers and Russian speakers learning English alike.

    The Dictionary of Russian Speech Etiquette (A. Balakai) provides four definitions for this word: 1) one of the most widespread intensifiers of politeness when making a request, offering advice, extending an invitation, apologizing, etc.; 2) a polite or welcoming positive response to a request or a question; 3) a polite response to an expression of gratitude; 4) a polite response to an apology.  Let’s take a brief look at how пожалуйста is used in these functions and what some of the common pitfalls are.

    The first meaning seems straightforward enough, with “please” appearing to be the universal equivalent, as in: Передайте, пожалуйста, горчицу (Could you please pass the mustard?).  In English, however, we sometimes use “please” on its own as a peremptory and possibly irritated request to stop an activity, usually with an accompanying gesture.

    The use of “пожалуйста” with no accompanying words in such situations could be misconstrued as an invitation (Meaning 2 – English speakers use “please” in this meaning less often) with hilarious results. A friend told me about an American woman who spoke some Russian who was being aggressively hit on by a drunk at a bar. She tried to get him to leave by waving her hands and desperately saying: Пожалуйста! which, in this case, sounded more like “Go ahead!” (When her husband came back he solved the problem with the more direct: Вон отсюда! – Get out of here!)

    Пожалуйста could be used in this context, but only within phrases like: Пожалуйста, не надо/ Пожалуйста, давайте не будем (Note the use of the 1st person plural in the meaning of the second-person imperative, that is, I’m saying “let’s,” but I mean “you.”).

    In the second meaning, пожалуйста could correspond to “please” or “here you are/sure/no problem” depending on the type of response: Будете чай? – Да, пожалуйста. (Would you like some tea? – Yes, please.) Можно я налью себе еще чаю? – Пожалуйста, угощайтесь! (Can I have some more tea? – Sure! Help yourself.) Note that, in the second meaning, when said with a deliberately nonchalant/abrupt intonation, пожалуйста implies that consent is given with marked indifference or even mild annoyance: Разрешите, я все-таки сам перепроверю. – Пожалуйста! (I’d still like to double-check it myself. – Sure/Go ahead.)

    Meaning 3 is a standard case of “here you are/you’re welcome,” which Russian speakers do not always associate with пожалуйста.

    A one-time Russian colleague of mine was rather perplexed by the “here you go” at the end of an e-mail from a foreign partner who had forwarded something to him, and interpreted it along the lines of “And where the hell did you come from?”  (my colleague was only beginning to work in a new capacity).

    This reminds me of another useful Russian phrase for “you’re welcome” – не за что! Used colloquially, it implies that the provider of something does not want to overemphasize the value of his service. However, given the literal meaning of the phrase (“There’s nothing to thank me for”), it could come in handy when translating the title of Will Ferrell’s spoof on George W. Bush “You’re Welcome, America!” – “Не за что, Америка!”

    When used as a response to an apology (Meaning 4), пожалуйста corresponds to “It’s OK/It’s fine/Never mind” and is synonymous in Russian with phrases like Ничего/Ничего страшного/Пустяки.

    The discrepancies between пожалуйста and “please” do not, however, end there. As translation scholar Lynn Visson notes, in the United States “please” has recently come to mean disagreement/disbelief, being synonymous with “Give me a break!” – in which case it is often pronounced “pu(h)leez(e).” Russian options for rendering “please” in this case would vary but «пожалуйста» will not be one of them, e.g.: “Avatar is here and there taken perfectly seriously as a kind of caring, environmental parable. My own response to this is: puh-leeze.” (То тут, то там «Аватар» на полном серьезе называют притчей о заботливом, этичном отношении к природе.

    Я лично по этому поводу могу сказать только одно: Как же, как же!) Other options in similar contexts could include: Ну да!, Конечно!, Ещё чего!, Да ладно (тебе/вам)!.

    Or пожалуйста can be part of an interjectory phrase like «Смотри(те) пожалуйста!», as in: Смотрите пожалуйста, какой обидчивый!
    (A bit touchy, aren’t we?)

    Finally, a note on punctuation.

    In Russian, пожалуйста is set off by commas when it’s used parenthetically in the abovementioned four meanings, but not as part of the interjectory phrase or in the meaning of “yes” (Можно с вами поговорить? – После обеда пожалуйста, а сейчас я занят – “Can I talk to you? – Sure, after lunch. Right now I can’t.”). So English phrases like “Could you, please, send us your samples?” are probably indicative of their Russian origin.

     

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    Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of www.themoscownews.com, where they appear every two weeks.

    Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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