Отказ: refusal

You goofed.
You agreed to take your significant other’s cousin’s mother’s best friend to
the mall for a day of shopping, and then you realized you couldn’t. It’s not
that you don’t want to — such fun, right? — but you completely forgot another

There are a
lot of ways to describe backing out of something in Russian. The most
straightforward is
отказатьсяотобещания (to renege on your promise), something
everyone has to do every once in a while:
Придётся отказаться от обещания пойтина
вечеринку (I have
to renege on my promise to come to the party.) This is also
несдержатьобещания (to not
keep your promise):
держитобещания (He never keeps his

If the
shopping expedition was one of your family responsibilities and you have a
habit of not fulfilling them, an angry family member might use the word
уклоняться (to shirk), which is a more
negative than just breaking a promise.
своихсемейныхобязанностей! (You always weasel out of your family
responsibilities!) If
youthinkthisisunfair — А кто ходил с ней к
врачу? В парикмахерскую? (Who
took her to the doctor? And the beauty parlor?) — or if you plan on doing it,
just not this weekend, you can make it clear that this isn’t a cancellation but a postponement. This is
откладывать (to put off): Мыпростооткладываемдоследующейсубботы (We’re
just postponing until next Saturday.)

When you
are reneging on commitments greater than a trip to the mall, you might use the
пойтинапопятную, a curious expression that means to walk
backward metaphorically:
Правительство пошло на попятную по ряду наиболее одиозных мер налоговойреформы (The government had to back pedal on a number of the
most objectionable tax reform measures.) Or you could just
датьзаднийход (to
go backward). This can be literal:
Онпопробовалдатьзаднийход, номашиназабуксовала (He
put the car in reverse, but it just spun its wheels.) But it also means
reversing a policy or behavior:
Власти были вынуждены дать задний ход (The authorities had to back down.)

Now that
you know what to call your back-pedaling, postponing, shirking, and reneging,
we come to the really tricky bit: what do you say? It’s hard enough to smooth
over a broken promise or politely break off an appointment in your native tongue
— how do you do it in a foreign language?

The art of
what Russians call
вежливыйотказ (politely saying no) is worth
mastering. First of all, memorize a few openers:
Увы (alas); ксожалению (unfortunately); жаль (it’s a shame); оченьжаль (it’s really a shame); какни
печально (sadly); or
какназло (as luck would have it).

Then call
up the subjunctive mood —
бы + past tense — to mollify your family — or electorate: былбы
рад (I’d be happy to); радабы
помочь (I’d be happy to
вами (I’d go with you);
хотелосьбы (I’d love to). This is
followed by
но (but) where you explain why you can’t.

And then
use impersonal phrases like
(it will be necessary to…) or
неполучается (it won’t work out).

If polite
doesn’t work, your back-up position is the simple, unadorned, emphatic:
могу (I just

And they
finally say:
Нет, такнет. (“No” it isthen.)

Michele A.
Berdy is a
translator and interpreter, author of “The Russian Word’s Worth,” a collection
of her columns. Follow her on Twitter @MicheleBerdy.