How to Fail Dramatically in Russian

Накрыться медным тазом: fail, fail, end, close

The other day a friend was talking about a failed project. But in Russian, belly up is – forgive the bad joke – another pot of fish. Instead of the image of a dead fish in the water, it is the image of something covered with a copper pot: as a translator until the agency goes belly up).

Of course, I wanted to know where the expression came from, but no research provided an answer.

There are, of course, versions. The most obvious is the image of Don Quixote by Miquel de Cervantes, who carried a copper pot on his head. The first problem with this derivation is that there is a bit of a distance between this image and the notion of failure, although I guess you could say that Don Quixote was kind of a walking failure. The second problem is that the book was translated into Russian at the end of the 18th century, and the expression seems to have appeared – or at least been used in conversational speech – at the end of the 20th century. What took everyone so long?

Another version cites Kornei Chukovsky’s children’s tale Мойдодыр (“rub them to pieces” – literally rub them so hard you make holes) a magic sink that takes a dirty little boy who wants to stay like that. The angry washbasin beats on his copper sink to trigger magic. The problem with this build is how the magic flying sponges and soap suds became a failure image.

The third version is that in the days before refrigeration, people put meat and other perishables under the copper pot used to make jam. Supposedly the copper preserved them, but it was not effective. The good thing about this version is that at least it’s the exact image of covering something with a copper pot. But the problem is, if the process was a failure and the meat was still spoiled anyway, why the hell would people keep doing it for ages?

But wherever it comes from, it’s a very colorful and satisfying expression. You can use it when something doesn’t happen or fails: (His dream of a brilliant television report fell through.) Or when something is a public flop, like a movie or a book: Cпектакль накрылся медным тазом! (The show was a complete flop!)

You must be careful not to confuse медные тазы with медные трубы (brass trumpets). These are the kind of trumpets that the royal pages play to announce the appearance of the great sovereign. Now they are colorful shorthand for praising someone. You often hear it in the expression Прошёл огонь, воду и медные трубы (He went through fire, water and fame), a shrewd observation that fame is as difficult to deal with as fire and water.

But if you want to show yourself, you might try to build a sentence like this: читателilles Восторженно трбилèe В медные трубы, криики Сешш Пр Пх Пх П П П пео медныe to use trimpets copper and close the book with a copper bowl).

But back to chess. They are not all the same. Sometimes a project does not go beyond the design phase. For this kind of disaster, you can use the verb реализоваться (to be implemented, to materialize) in the negative form. Очень жаль, что этот музыкальный проект не реализовался. У нас беда с национальной политикой ― декларативна, существует лишь на бумаге, на практике не реализуется совсем (In our country it’s a shame that our nationalities policy is purely declarative and exists only on paper, but it’s not carried out in practice at all).

Another neuter verb to describe a failed project is состояться (to take place), again used in the negative. Sometimes it just means that something didn’t happen: В самый последний момент заболела. Поездка не состоялась (At the very last moment I got sick. So I didn’t make the trip.) But it can also mean that something didn’t go away: ральный социалзз не состоялpitсот, х я я я х (True socialism never came into being, although isolated elements of the model could be found). It can also be used when someone or something does not achieve what was expected of them: theater (Not a single actor kept his promise in our theater).

For something that happened but was a real failure, use провалиться (to fail, to fall through something), which is kind of an all-purpose verb for people prone to failure. It can be used only to describe a physical accident: Боялась, что собака выбежит на лёд и провалится (I was afraid that the dog would run on the ice and fall through). And then it can be used to describe a failure itself: “хованщина” ставилаbli В “ла скала” В 1950 году, но тога она провалилась: оорша нOU (Khovanshchina was performed at La Scala in 1950, but it was a flop at the time – the opera was in Russian, which no one in the hall understood).

When you really flop, you do it с треском (with a bang): Оксфорд из Омска не получился. Проект с треском провалился. Англичане уехали (They couldn’t turn Omsk into Oxford. The project was a resounding failure. The British went home.)

And then, when you failed spectacularly, you can use the verb again: Готов был сквозь землю провалиться (I wish the earth would swallow me).

Finally, there is the expression потерпеть крах, which literally means “to undergo destruction”. It can be historically massive: Мы знаем, что советский эксперимент потерпел крах (We know that the Soviet experiment was a miserable failure). Or it can be personally massive: Я потерпела крах своих первых любовных отношений (All my first relationships were complete disasters).

I’ve also seen it used to translate the English expression too-big-to-fail: слишком большие, чтобы им можно было позволить потерпеть крах. It is expressive but much more verbose than the common translation слишком большой, чтобы обанкротиться).

But unfortunately, as we see, nothing and no one is really too big to fail.

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