Lost in Translation: Давай (da-vai)
I didn’t intend for this to be a series, and especially not a back-to-back series, but creative and energetic juices are running low this week. Welcome to Lost in Translation, a collection of articles where I explore terms that don’t have simple translations in English. These terms might be personal to me or might be interesting simply because of the ideas they convey, but the question answered at the end of each piece is if English is a poorer language for lack of this term. The first article in this series can be found here.
Since English is the language I am the most comfortable with by a significant margin, there will inevitably be errors defining these words, especially within the nuances I seek. The subject of this article is particularly tricky since I intend on exploring my favourite word to learn in a foreign language, the English translation of which is “let’s go”. If I make any errors, I implore you to correct me, now or another time.
I think the best place to start is with давай. This is the first I picked up and continues to be my favourite to this day. It is Russian for “let’s go”, significant in its prevalence as well as its nuance. давай is familiar to anyone who has an Eastern European friend, or who inhabits anywhere on the internet with a significant Russian or CIS population. As I understand, it means “let’s” when used with a “to go” verb, such as “давай пойдем в клуб!!”, meaning “let’s go to the club!!” but means “let’s go” or “go” when used alone and can be an interjection of encouragement in expressions like “давай cука”.
I picked it up from an online game that many Russian-speaking people play and was treated to an intimate firsthand demonstration of its usage. “давай?” when considering whether to attempt a risky maneuver, “давай.” to confirm the maneuver, “давай давай” when the maneuver is happening, and “Давай!” when the maneuver proves successful. If someone expressed hesitation or reservation, the voice chat would be quick to be filled with a stream of obscenity choked давайs, particularly if this was perceived to result in the failure of the manoeuvre.
On the internet, the word became synonymous with Russian hardheadedness and idiocy, emblematic of CIS culture. Videos of Russian hard bass, Slavs swimming in frozen lakes, Eastern Europeans drinking, or any of their countrymen engaging in dangerous physical stunts, давай could be found in the comments both encouraging and disparaging this sort of behaviour. To infer anything about a culture from this one word would perhaps be a stretch, but I feel that it is this word that embodies at the very least the internet stereotype of the CIS region. It is a scream in a muted room, a middle finger to the uptight world, a complete disregard for consequences and joy for the act itself.
And so, I quickly imported it into my daily usage. For me, it is an interjection of excitement, or a mantra of encouragement. If something exciting is happening, the word escapes my lips, a “ДАВАЙ” from the belly. If I need to steel myself before committing to a risk, the word is on my tongue, a “давай давай” muttered to myself. It accompanies me during my highs so it can buoy me during my lows. Several of my friends have picked it up, crowing it in excitement with me, and often against me when I need convincing to continue engaging in some sort of activity. Recently I learned that one of my friends thought it meant “don’t worry”, which really speaks to how much I use it to encourage people.
Another similar word in a difference language is يلا, (yallah), Arabic for давай. Similar to давай, يلا is used in what I can only assume is proper way to mean “let’s go”, but is very often used to mean “LET”S GOOOOO”. It’s a real pity that fratboys aren’t a little more culturally aware; they’re really missing out on a lot of fun in mixing tongues. Also like давай, any sort of interaction with Middle Eastern or Arabic speaking people circles will promptly introduce this word into anyone’s vocabulary. Easy to pick up, non-offensive, and quite useful, it has also become a part of my vocabulary.
Interestingly, there are certain shades of nuance to the usage of давай and يلا, though not too subtle to elude me during my indiscriminate abuse of these terms. I perceive يلا to be a lot less aggressive than давай, and I use it to coax and encourage more than I use it to celebrate. Though I’d encourage someone to drink more liquor, play another game, or participate in some other activity while withholding their better judgement with both a يلا يلا or a давай давай, I’d only scream ДАВАЙ when they acquiesce. يلا I reserve for the lower end of the spectrum, often as a mantra of sorts when I need to get through the last quarter of a run, or pull myself out of bed in the morning.
I know how to say this in other languages of course, but ándale and 가다 don’t have the same kick. This is evident in their lack of prevalence in immigrant circles, despite the significant media content and size of following. Not only are they indistinctive when used in television or music, their immigrant populations don’t insist on turning to them when speaking in English. Empirically, давай is one of the most well-known Russian words, perhaps even in front of cпасибо (thank you) or привет (hi), and يلا is perhaps the most well-known Arabic word that doesn’t have to do with Islam or food.
Similarly, English, French, and Chinese are all missing equivalents. ‘let’s go’, ‘allez’ and ‘vas-y’, or ‘来吧’ and ‘加油’ all lack the versatility and emphasis that давай and يلا bring to the table. However, the question at the end of the day is if the English language less rich because it lacks this term? I say not. Though it’s incredible fun to scream давай, running through the gauntlet of “давай? давай давай? даваййййййй. ДАВАЙ!”, hollering “let’s go? Come on come on. Yoooooooo. LET”S GO!” has the same effect on revelers everywhere. Давай.