1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Russian
  4. >
  5. "У него плохая память."

"У него плохая память."

Translation:He has a poor memory.

December 19, 2015



I might tend towards "bad memory" as remembering an unpleasant experience" and "poor memory" as an inability to recall past things.

But "have" here suggests the ability of recall. I would probably use an action verb to mean "an unpleasant recollection": "seeing his friends fight dredged up some bad memories of his parents getting into shouting matches."


I think you have hit on it: although we talk about "a bad memory", meaning something unpleasant that is remembered, in practice - probably to avoid the potential ambiguity - we tend to either say

i) "he has bad memories"
e.g. "he had bad memories from the war" i.e. unpleasant memories which recurred to him repeatedly
ii) "he has an unpleasant memory [of X]"
i.e. a specific unpleasant memory has occurred to him
iii) "X raised a bad memory of Y"
i.e. different action verb


Is this grammatical in English? I'd think that "having a bad memory" means that someone has an unplasant memory of something happening; while having difficulty remembering would be "having bad memory" - without the "a". Am I wrong? If you're a native English speaker, please say what you think.


You're not wrong that "having a bad memory" can refer to remembering something unpleasant that happened (e.g. "He has a bad memory of when he crashed his car"). However, it is pretty common to use this to mean not being able to remember things well. In a conversation, context indicates what is meant (e.g. "I don't remember talking about that yesterday." "That's because you have a bad memory"). We wouldn't say "I have bad memory" since a person has a memory or not, that is, an ability to recall and remember or not.

I believe that "having a poor memory" is traditionally considered the "grammatically correct" expression. But nowadays, it may sound literary or archaic to the younger generation of English speakers.


In English 'a poor memory' is a better description of being unable to recall things; 'a bad memory' is more often used to describe recalling something unpleasant - though it occurs more frequently in the plural ie "that brings back bad memories"


I don't think I agree. If I hear "bad memories", then yes, that means a memory of something unpleasant. But if I just hear "I have a bad memory" without context, without specifying what it's a memory of, to me that means difficulty in remembering, and even sounds more natural than "a poor memory".


Does this mean that he has a memory of a bad thing that happened, or that he has difficulty remembering things? or both?


difficulty remembering things only


Yeah, in that case ‘has bad memory’ is not only fine, it’s less ambiguous.


I will let the translator of this sentence know. He is a native English speaker, so it could escape him that he used the wrong Russian translation.


"Memory" is ambiguous in English: (1) something remembered and (2) ability to remember. It has other meanings in other contexts (for example, "he has a bad memory" could mean that a certain chip is bad in his computer).

The adjective "poor" is preferable in English if the meaning is the "ability to remember." The adjective "unpleasant" (неприятная) would be preferable if the meaning is "something remembered."

"Память" is similarly ambiguous in Russia: (1) то же, что воспоминание о ком-чем-нибудь and (2) способность сохранять и воспроизводить прежние впечатления и т.д.

So, in this case, the ambiguity is identical in English and Russian, and "bad" (плохая) nicely preserves that ambiguity.

  • 163

The ambiguity is not identical. Плохая память only means a shabby ability to memorize and recall things.

Память as a memory of something is a sort of a mass noun describing the whole body of memories about someone or something. It is quite limited in use—expect something like "to honour the memory of the people who died in the attack". Only some expressive adjectives can be used with this word (e.g., «светлая память» or «бесценная память»)


I really don't understand, what you are arguing about. The usage of the word memory - память is almost identical in Russian and English. Плохая память in the sense of poor ability is better to be translated as poor memory, and плохая память, плохие воспоминания are better to be translated as bad memory and bad memories. So if anything, I agree with Bill, память in the sense of the body of memories is used regularly in literature and official speech, it might not be a daily conversational topic, though you might here that when someone talks about their deceased relatives.

  • 163

The interesting point is, if плохая память without specification of its source is used in the meaning of negative memories of past events. This use is uncommon to say the least.

When learning a language, simply listing meanings of a word is of little use without specification of a context to which they apply. for example, "fast" means "quick, rapidly moving", "fixed in space", "deep".

Память, when used for "memories" is used when entangled in bigger structures. So the sentences in the title is not ambiguous in Russian.


I think "He has a bad memory" can be properly translated as "У него плохая память". The use of the article "a" here does not restrict the meaning of the English to a particular recollection (i.e., a memory of something). On the contrary, I expect most English speakers would interpret the bare statement "he has a bad memory" to mean that he has a poor ability to remember and recall things correctly.

"He has poor memory" is apparently rather uncommon in English. A Google search first shows 4,650 results, but it reduces to 68 results if you push to the end. In contrast, "he has a poor memory" yields 68,990 results (and I don't want to push it to the end). A clue to why "memory" is a countable noun with this meaning (and therefore requires the article "a") is provide by two definitions in the dictionary:

  1. the mental capacity or faculty of retaining or recalling facts, events, impressions, or previous experiences.

  2. this faculty as possessed by a particular individual: to have a good memory.

Because we are using meaning 2, the term is countable in the same way that particular individuals are countable.

"He has poor memory" should be accepted as an English translation, but it should not be recommended because it is ungrammatical.


I've checked the corpus of the American English, and it turns out that in the sense of the ability you can use the following three options- poor memory, a poor memory and a bad memory. However, a bad memory might also mean - an unpleasant memory of something, so should not be the best translation for this sentence as it brings ambiguity. While both poor memory and a poor memory can be used, a poor memory is used more often in the combination with I have, She has and so on, so we should make that the starred translation, and all the other options should stay in the alternative translations just as it was before.


Ok, so the opinions divided, some people in this same discussion claim that "having a bad memory means that someone has an unpleasant memory of something happening" and you claim it is not the case. If you're right, then Russian word память doesn't work this way, 1st it is never countable. 2nd У него плохая память means only that he has poor ability and there is no ambiguity at all. Now, what I don't understand is your point. You started this discussion with the claim: "The adjective "poor" is preferable in English if the meaning is the "ability to remember."" Now you claim the opposite, now you claim it is completely ungrammatical. You claim that it must be used with the article. I don't know about poor or weak memory, but in literature I read I often see working memory and poor working memory without the article, so I would at least question your claim.


In meaning 2 of память (то же, что воспоминание о ...), память is countable in Russian.

In English, meaning 1 of memory (a general ability or capacity) is uncountable, but meaning 2 (such a capacity possessed by a particular person) is countable. When we speak about his memory as his ability to remember, then we use meaning 2, and we say he has a good memory or he has a poor memory (he has a strong memory or he has a weak memory or he has a bad memory).

Perhaps ambiguity can be reduced by changing the sentence structure? His memory is poor. Память у него плохая? Его память плохая?

I should also note that "плохая память о ..." does not necessarily imply Russian meaning 2. I can find many instances of this sequence with meaning 1 (ability), particularly in the medical literature. The context provides clues for determining which of the possible meanings is best for a given word with multiple meanings. Even a sentence like "У него плохая память" would normally occur in some context.

You ask me about the computer in the corner, "Does the computer work?" I answer, "Not well." You ask, "Что с ним?" Отвечаю, "У него плохая память". In this case, the best English translation would be "It has a bad memory."


Ah, so you're talking about the sentence in the title - indeed there is no ambiguity whatsoever, it can only mean poor ability and not bad memories, that is why it actually brought so many questions, as it was initially translated as He has a bad memory, which actually means У него есть одно плохое воспоминание (которое его беспокоит, к примеру). I've changed the main translation to He has poor memory which is the direct and unambiguous translation of the Russian sentence.


An example of meaning 2 of память in my dictionary (то же, что воспоминание о ком-чем-нибудь) is "Прежный начальник оставил по себе плохую память". This example does use the adjective "bad" with this meaning of "memory" obviously relating to memory or memories of a specific person in a certain role. The other example given in the dictionary by Ожегов и Шведова is "Хранить память о событии". It seems to me that if the event was a very unpleasant experience, then the memory of it would be a bad memory. The ambiguity in English is often resolved by using the plural to distinguish what is remembered from the ability to remember.

  • 163

There is ambiguity in English, and I do not question this. In Russian, however... You can find examples of "плохая память по кому-то" even in the corpus, though rarely. The most recent I found is От Англии до Германии, повсюду американский солдат оставил по себе плохую память written in 1950, which is about the time Ozhegov published his dictionary as well.

However, the basic block here is оставить память or память по кому-то (both pretty stilted, if you ask me), which you can then build upon. Even if a modern speaker would use "Someone оставил по себе плохую память", I doubt anyone would consider "У меня по someone плохая память" grammatical. The interpretation of "У кого-то плохая память" as a recollection of past events is therefore blocked (I do not think we use память in this meaning as something that can be possessed)—however, dozens of examples from the last 200 years show its use to refer to the ability to remeber things.


A few more recent examples:

"Плохая память о прошлом только будет тормозить вас на вашем жизненном пути." http://www.yourfreedom.ru/zhizn-v-tvoix-rukax/

"Плохая память о «Дальнем» должна уйти... Как и само здание ОВД." http://www.mk.ru/social/2012/07/10/723982-ovd-dalniy-snesut-s-litsa-zemli.html

"Разочарование их самих и плохая память о них народа - вот результат их деятельности." http://www.siapress.ru/blogs/51428

"А сотрудников газет попавших к нему в зависимость жаль, на всю жизнь плохая память о подлеце сохранится." http://www.zercalo.org/articles/11018-agoniya-munitsipalnykh-smi

"Тот деятель, который доказывал, что зимой можно бетонировать опоры моста - давно помер. Но плохая память о нем у горожан осталась." http://www.mastercity.ru/forums/obshij/t132472-cement-razedaet-vsyo/

"В итоге вы не только не продадите им товар, но и оставите плохую память о вашем магазине." http://tinyurl.com/zwkuvtt

"Не хотелось бы, чтобы подобные происки хулиганов испортили им настроение и оставили плохую память о Хабаровске, — дополнил Сергей Логинов." http://www.dvnovosti.ru/khab/2016/01/14/45117/


Bill, if you want to talk about computer memory, it is better to say in Russian that У него памяти мало. or if it is about quality of the memory card, then you should say У него карта памяти плохая.


This English translation is ideal to me. We would say this ~☆instead of☆~ "He has a bad memory" to make it clear that we are talking about his general ability to remember things. With "bad" it could mean either.


I agree; the current translation (as I understand it has changed a few times) of "...a poor memory" is ideal for everyday English. Larisa mentioned above about the literature she reads, and I wonder ig she is talking about neuropsychological literature? Because in neuropsychological reports, it is common to see "he has poor working memory", ie, leaving out the indefinit article. In the same way, doctors write, "she has pain in the chest", because it indicates possibly several instances of pain, or else continuing pain. That being said, I think medical literature is probably beyond the scope of this course.


"Bad memory" is not going to work, is it?


I hate when I forget this one

Learn Russian in just 5 minutes a day. For free.