"We thought Saint Petersburg was a city in Germany."
Translation:Мы думали, Петербург — город в Германии.
It should definitely be accepted. Please report this sentence if you get it next time.
Along tangential lines to the что construction: going back to my original Russian studies, almost 30 years ago, my instinct was to try to make the subordinate clause subjunctive: "Мы думали, [что] Петербург был (бы) город в Гермаии," where был бы is not meant to denote past tense, but the subjunctive. I'm thinking this is the long form of this sentence, which is simplified here to make it more colloquial.
Is this in any way approaching correct sentence structure, or am I just trying to translate directly from English?
It sounds fairly odd for a number of reasons.
- Unlike in English, we rarely give definitions in the past tense. Having no "is" in the present is, apparently, a smart thing to do: "Петербург — город" does not explicitly say that the sentence refers to the present moment, only that the definition is valid (i.e. if the word "Petersburg" refers to an existing or a fictional enitity, it is what you would call a city; if the entity no longer exists, it was a city when it existed).
- you would also prefer "городом в Германии".
- был бы городом в Германии can only be understood literally, i.e. you claim that under a certain set of conditions (which exactly?) Petersburg would be or might have been a city in Germany.
- Russian uses relative time in clauses. "Мы думали" is in the past, so whatever you embed "inside" is already understood relative to that point in the past. This is fairly useful, given that Russian lost most of its tenses even before it became Russian.
The only colloquial part of the sentence in the title is the omission of что.
Why would it be subjunctive, by the way? I think, in English "We thought that Saint Petersburg be a German city" sounds off. Does it?
Right, the first part of the sentence is enough. Unlike English, Russian, the tense of the subordinate sentence is understood to be relative to the main sentence, so:
- Мы ду́мали, что Петербу́рг — город в Герма́нии. We thought Petersburg was/is a city in Germany. (i.e. it was a city in Germany at the same time we were thinking that)
- Мы ду́мали, что Петербу́рг был го́родом¹ в Герма́нии. We thought Petersburg had been a city in Germany. (i.e. it was a city in Germany before we were thinking that)
- Мы ду́мали, что Петербу́рг бу́дет го́родом¹ в Германии. We thought that Petersburg would be a city in Germany. (i.e. we thought about the future)
In Russian, the tense of the indirect speech and direct speech is the same:
- Мы ду́мали: «Петербу́рг — город в Герма́нии». = Мы ду́мали, что Петербу́рг — го́род в Герма́нии.
- Мы ду́мали: «Петербу́рг был го́родом¹ в Герма́нии». = Мы ду́мали, что Петербу́рг был го́родом¹ в Герма́нии.
In English, on the other hand, we have to transform the sentence in the indirect speech:
- We thought: "Petersburg is a city in Germany." = We thought that Petersburg was a city in Germany.
- We thought: "Petersburg was a city in Germany." = We thought that Petersburg had been a city in Germany.
¹ In the past and future tense, with «был» and «бу́дет» both instrumental and nominative cases are possible. I personally use instrumental everywhere. Rosenthal's guidelines suggest using instrumental for temporary things, and nominative for permanent (I think the distinction is blurred for the 'city in Germany', because the fact that city is in Germany can be changed, as with Königsberg, but it's not changed often so it can be considered permanent).
Long story short, the present tense would be much better here. First, the tense itself is wrong. The English sentence says "thought ... was ...", so it should be the present tense in Russian (the vents of subordinate clauses are relative to when the main clause happens).
Second, we do not really use the nominative with definitions this way.
- it is associated with a constant quality, i.e. implies the city you mean IS in Germany, though St.Petersburg is not THAT city anymore, which does not make a lot of sense.
If you meant that St. Petersburg used to be a city in Germany you would use "... был городом в Германии". It still sounds odd, though it would work with "a German city" instead of "a city in Germany".
Note that in Russian, definitions are usually in the present tense, regardless of whether the object still exists. The logic is, Мемфис may have ceased to exist a long time ago but the word still means an Egyptian city (that existed in the past).
To Alice Winters because replying on mobile is broken: Imo, Что can mean both that and what, so if you think it would be used in english, it probably is here. Also, we usually use думать preceding что because it is an easy way to transition right to what the thought actually is