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How to elegantly say in Russian, "He was never to get what he wanted or, at least, what he said he wanted."

Russian Language Asked on October 4, 2021

I got an assignment to translate the following text into Russian:

But nothing in Voroshilov’s carefully chosen words or courteous demeanor suggested the feverish activity in Berlin and Moscow that was turning the military conference into an empty tableau vivant. On the contrary, Voroshilov was bland but insistent. He patiently explained that while he had full powers to conclude an agreement, there could be none unless the Poles agreed that he could engage the invader through Poland. He was never to get what he wanted or, at least, what he said he wanted.

I got stuck with the last sentence. My mind just can’t come up with anything good enough to meet the standards of my teacher, with the main difficulty being to say "what he said he wanted." What comes to mind is as clumsy and awful as this:

Ему было суждено никогда не получить то, что он хотел или, по крайней мере, что он, по его словам, хотел.

I see no way of expressing "what he said he wanted" without resorting to introductory clauses like по его словам or как он говорил, but such clauses are perceived as an omittable clarification and thus don’t seem to be a good fit here.

As a separate issue, I’m unsure how to best express "he was never to get" in Russian in this context.

How would native Russian speakers translate that sentence?


UPDATE: I just did research to understand the context, and it turns out that the context helps understand the true meaning of the last sentence. I just posted an answer below with my current translation of the entire excerpt.

9 Answers

As a native russian I'd translate this into "Ему не дано было получить того, что он хотел или, по крайней мере, называл своим желанием."

Here he-was-never-to-get means exactly ему было не дано (or almost the same - ему было не суждено, the latter is more about faith). There are no any doubts.

"At least" - is very good as isolated по крайней мере (or more informal "во всяком случае")

"what he said he wanted" usually is not translated literally (что он говорил, что хочет/желает), because it's too complex to sound in russian as isolated expression with commas and sounds bad stylistically. But "что он требовал" is also inappropriate bcs it has a tone of claim/require while original means to just ask for what is wanted/wished. "требовал" means claimed/required (sometimes ordered). I suppose the initial meaning is "he announced/designated what he wanted" or in short "he announced/designated his wishes" what can be translated literally as он называл своим желанием. And this variant would be stylistically and semantically correct.

Also note that suggestion above to use чего in subordinate clause is totally incorrect bcs it must be a pronoun used in Accusative inside subordinate. But main word to which such pronoun is targeting can be in either Accusative or Genitive (for negative predicate Genitive is possible and usually preferred).

Answered by Anton Astafiev on October 4, 2021

The best art in translation is the art of omission. Even if it's not the most precise, but it's the shortest one, I think:

Но он так и не добился ни того чего хотел, ни того о чём просил.

So then it should be

Но он так и не добился того чего хотел, а вернее, того о чём просил.

Answered by Matt on October 4, 2021

I just did some research to understand the context, and it turns out that the context helps understand the true meaning of the last sentence. A couple of pages before the page the excerpt is taken from, the author quotes Stalin as saying to the Politburo:

We must accept the German offer and send the French-British mission, with a courteous rejection, back home. I repeat that it is in your interest that if war breaks out between the Reich and the Anglo-French bloc, it is essential for us that the war should last as long as possible, so both sides exhaust one another. One these grounds we must accept the pact offered by Germany and once war is declared work for its lasting as long as possible. In the meantime, we must continue our political work in the warring countries so that we will be well prepared when the war comes to an end.

"A courteous rejection," as Stalin put it, of the French-British mission may thus have been what Voroshilov really wanted. He didn't get what he asked for, but he did succeed in deadlocking the negotiations, and that may have been his true goal in those negotiations. So the author implies that Voroshilov may have gotten precisely what he actually wanted!

It's pretty devilish of Stalin and Voroshilov - as well as of my teacher, who gave me such an assignment with such a trap. One of the commentators here even walked straight into it by offering the following translation:

Ему никогда не было суждено получить то, что он хотел, не говоря уж от том, чтобы требовать.

Now, a correct translation must make the same implication as the original sentence does, and I just constructed the following variant by using ideas by @Quassnoi, @SergeySlepov, and @user14761:

Ему было так и не добиться желаемого - точнее, того, что он за него выдавал.

Точнее isn't precisely equal to at least, but makes the same implication in the context, I guess.

As @tum_ asked in a comment, I'm posting here my current translation of the entire excerpt:

Но в тщательно подбираемых Ворошиловым словах и его обходительном поведении ничто не указывало на лихорадочную активность в Берлине и Москве, превращавшую эту конференцию военных в бессмысленную пантомиму. Напротив, Ворошилов был мягок, но настойчив. Он терпеливо объяснял, что, несмотря на имеющиеся у него полномочия заключить соглашение, оно не будет достигнуто, пока поляки не согласятся на возможность его прохода через Польшу для сражения с захватчиком. Ему было так и не добиться желаемого - точнее, того, что он за него выдавал.

My teacher is very harsh and will deduct points for any inaccuracy or unnaturalness, so I cannot but humbly hope that my translation is more or less up to his standards and that he will finally be pleased.

Answered by Mitsuko on October 4, 2021

As I native speaker I'd probably say something like

"Ему не дано было получить то, чего он хотел, или, по крайней мере, говорил, что хотел."

I don't like replacing "he said" with "по его словам", I think it changes the meaning of the sentence. "По его словам" carries the implication that it's just words, which might not be what the author intended. I also feel that "не дано" is a better fit as it's much more neutral.

Answered by Slepana on October 4, 2021

He was never to get what he wanted or, at least, what he said he wanted.

Его желанию или, по крайней мере, словам не суждено было сбыться.

Answered by V.V. on October 4, 2021

Ему было никогда не получить желаемого или того, что он за оное выдавал.

Answered by user14761 on October 4, 2021

The sentence in question implies that Voroshilov's requirements might not have been what he really wanted. I can think of a few ways to render this in Russian:

  1. Он так и не получил желаемого - точнее, требуемого.

  2. Его желания так и остались без удовлетворения - точнее, его требования.

#2 is a bit more formal and better matches the style of the text.

Answered by Sergey Slepov on October 4, 2021

Ему было ни за что не получить того, чего он хотел, или, по крайней мере, чего он хотел на словах.

I agree with @Quassnoi, суждено is too deterministic, it is not needed here. But I'd change your то, что >> того, чего and the next что >> чего, too. Tого is the Genitive case after a negated verb, and чего is because this way it will resolve the possible ambiguity between что as a conjunction and as a pronoun, since "что он хотел" is both "that he wanted" and "what he wanted", while "чего он хотел" is only "what he wanted".

На словах is a part of the idiom на словах и на деле, "in word and [in] deed". Using this phrase we both sound more idiomatic and avoid additional commas. The missing part of the idiom suggests that in deed, in fact, Voroshilov wanted something more than just crossing Poland to engage the German troops.

Answered by Yellow Sky on October 4, 2021

Ему было ни за что не получить того, что он хотел — хотел, по его словам.

The author suggests that Voroshilov realized that his demands were unrealistic, so I think суждено is a worse choice here.

Суждено implies blind forces of nature, not something decided by people.

A better word choice would probably be ему не светило, but I would not sure this would be appropriate for a text like that.

Update:

My attempt, with all the ideas gathered from the comments and other answers:

Но ничто в Ворошилове — ни тщательный подбор слов, ни обходительное поведение — не выдавало кипучей деятельности Берлина и Москвы, превращавшей военные переговоры в пустой спектакль "живые картины". Напротив, Ворошилов был сух, но настойчив. Он терпеливо пояснял, что хотя он и уполномочен заключить соглашение, его не будет без согласия поляков на проход его войск через Польшу для дачи отпора захватчику. А того, что он желал — желал на словах — ему было не получить ни за что.

And here's the version which is my interpretation of author's intent (it is not a translation)

Кипучая деятельность, которую тем временем вели в Берлине и Москве, превращала военные переговоры в пустой фарс. Однако ничто ни в обходительном поведении Ворошилова, ни в тщательно подбираемых им словах не указывало на это. На переговорах Ворошилов вёл себя сухо, но настойчиво. Он терпеливо пояснял, что полномочия заключить соглашение у него есть, но этого не случится, пока не будет выполнено то, что — по крайней мере, на словах — было его желанием: заручиться согласием поляков на то, чтобы советские войска могли дать захватчику бой, пройдя через Польшу. А согласия этого ему было не получить ни за что.

I'm not really sure what the author meant by "Tableau vivant" so I decided to go with фарс — "a token effort to give an appearance"

Answered by Quassnoi on October 4, 2021

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