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 9


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.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 16:05

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

  • "Было "здесь как-то ни к чему, речь о будущем.
    – V.V.
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 17:38

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.

  • 1
    Mitsuko's teacher says that "переводчик должен с огромным уважением относиться к оригиналу и передавать мысли автора как можно точнее, стараясь не терять ни капли смысла". There's no opposition of "желания" vs "требования", instead there's "what he wanted" vs "what he said he wanted". I'm afraid the teacher won't appreciate your free treatment of the original text. Anyhow, there were no Soviet "требования" at all at those talks, only propositions.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 23:31
  • 1
    Semantically correct. Stylistically — probably not.
    – user28434
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 8:42

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.


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.


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"


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.


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).


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.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 16:05
  • This is wrong on so many levels...
    – Headcrab
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 10:27

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.

  • Oh, it doesn't make sense in the historical context. What Voroshilov actually wanted was to stalemate the negotiations, and he succeeded in that. That's the implication made by the author. Have a look at my answer.
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 10:17
  • @Mitsuko Okay, I stand corrected. But it sounds as poor English to me then. Maybe it's only because my English is poor, but I really don't like the sentence as it is.
    – Matt
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 10:36
  • The author is Eugene Davidson, so the sentence should be fine from the standpoint of the English language... In my opinion, the sentence is natural and perfect linguistically, but is somewhat vague, with some implicit implications, and this contributes to the difficulty of translating it into Russian.
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 10:42
  • The author chose he was never to get instead of he never got, and I guess I should somehow reflect it in my translation. He was never to get sounds like a conviction sentence, a predetermined fate, or something pre-arranged, although such constructions are often used to poetically express an outcome, like, "He sailed off on Wednesday. He was never to be seen by anyone again." My feeling is that он так и не добился is a somewhat simplistic translation and would thus do some kind of injustice to the original text.
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 10:44
  • @Mitsuko I don't say the sentence is ungrammatical, but it's rather a poor style. And the choice of "he was never to get" is really a part of that style. To translate it precisely in Russian you have to say "Но ему так никогда и не было суждено добиться..." and so on. However, as it was already noted by someone this sounds just awful. And, I believe, that's not because of an awful translation, but because of an awful source.
    – Matt
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 10:51

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