So recently I was looking up some sentences on reverso.net, and I noticed that most of the translations of 'would' would most often use the compound or perfective future. I asked some Russian friends about this phrase:

Well, the Left Prime Minister is not that easy of a person who would just sit and watch. И всё же, левый госминистр не из тех, кто будет сидеть сложа руки.

And then I showed them this one:

И всё же, левый госминистр не из тех, кто бы сидел сложа руки.

I asked them if they thought there was any difference between the phrases, they said no, then I asked which one they would probably use, then they said the first one.

I know 'бы' can have a pluperfect connotation of "would've", but it doesn't seem to always carry this meaning, since I asked them "How would you translated the phrase 'This would be my favorite'", and they said 'это было бы моим любимым'. So are there any good explanations?

  • Sorry, what is the question? Could you sum up please? – Sergey Slepov Apr 25 at 21:04
  • @SergeySlepov If the future can be used for phrases like "I would sit there" – Луге Ушчимі Apr 25 at 22:01
  • The main difference between the 2 sentences is that Russian Conditional is not marked for tense (can mean any tense) while Future is, it's either about the future or about right now and on into the future. In order not to include references to the past, the Future Tense is used. The English sample sentence is in the Present Conditional, so translating it with Future is pretty well justified. If I didn't see the English sentence and was presented with those 2 Russian sentences, I wouldn't have enough context to know which one is better. – Yellow Sky Apr 26 at 3:04
  • What is госминистр? – Anixx May 3 at 6:49

Both Russian sentences are conditional sentences with the protasis (the part describing the antecedent) omitted or implied.

It describes the consequence ("will not just sit and watch") of an antecedent which is not mentioned.

For the sake of discussion, I will assume that the antecedent is "a pandemic breaks out"

Левый госминистр не из тех, кто будет сидеть сложа руки (если случится пандемия)

This is an indicative (factual) conditional sentence.

It assumes that everything except the antecedent is in place. This means that we do have a Left Prime Minister, they have enough power to do something except sitting and watching, etc. Everything, except the plausible pandemic, is there, and we are making a logical conclusion from the known facts.

Левый госминистр не из тех, кто сидел бы сложа руки (если бы случилась пандемия)

This is a subjunctive (counterfactial) conditional sentence. It describes the consequence of the antecedent in an imaginary world, where it's plausible and the rest of the facts check out. In the real world, it is not so.

This sentence does not describe the real world. We might not have a Left Prime Minister, or the pandemic is implausible, or it's a reductio ad absurdum ("the Prime Minister says they're Left, but a Left Prime Minister would not just sit and watch, and this one is sitting and watching, hence they're not Left, q.e.d.")

It works almost the same way in English. English marks the subjunctive mood with the past tense of "will", Russian with a past tense with бы.

English is a little bit more forgiving about mixing the moods. The phrases like "if you feed a dog chocolate, it will die" and "if you fed a dog chocolate, it would die" can both be used in the factual meaning.

In Russian, если накормишь собаку шоколадом, она умрёт is factual, while если бы ты накормил собаку шоколадом, она бы умерла is counterfactual.

That said, we don't have enough context to translate this phrase. We don't know if the situation in question is factual or not, so we cannot pick the right mood.


Interesting question! First of all, I think the conditional is less used in Russian than in English or in Romance languages. I'll try to explain why - though I won't be able to provide a scientific explanation.

The conditional projects the statement into a hypothetical world. It is used in contexts where something suggests we are out of the real. Here, the example you give is rather a way of making broader extrapolations on the real behaviour of Prime Minister in different circumstances. He's not able to sit there and watch. You are imagining a possible future. No action makes us go out of real world. It's a description of a character. Such a use of imperfective future is quite common in Russian. The meaning could be described as "he is not such a person". We are trying to define the person, not to imagine an hypothetical system with a strong unreal hypothesis.

Also, the imperfective future can convey to the verb the value of an intention, as in the sentence "Я больше не буду" (I won't do it anymore - used by punished children, as in this funny sketch by Eralash). I have the intuition it is also the case here, as it refers to the psychology of a man.

(As a methodological tip I would suggest not to ask native speakers to translate just one sentence like "it would be my favourite" without any context. I'm afraid it's a mere theoretical translation which won't really help you understanding the use of the conditional. Это было бы моим любимым is certainly possible, but sounds very heavy in Russian.)

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