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In Hebrew we have the phrase "מה אתה רוצה ממני?", literally "what do you want from me?", and the stronger version "מה אתה רוצה מהחיים שלי?", literally, "what do you want from my life?". It can be used with no problem even when the other party doesn't actually want anything - e.g., when he is trying to help, but the help is unwelcome.

My first wonder is whether the phrase "what do you want from me?" has the same connotation in English, or would it be interpreted strictly as "what material benefit are you hoping to gain by interacting with me?" (and thus, sound out of place if used with the borrowed meaning)?

If the latter, what other phrase can be used to convey the same message?

The expression I have in mind is also usable in 3rd person, e.g.: "The teacher tried to explain a difficult concept, and hoped it would be as clear and exciting to the students as it was for him. But the students didn't get it or care much - they just stared at him blankly and wondered what he wanted from them."

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    I can think of a dozen ways to say that, but most of them are unsuitable even for this venue. (But "What is it you want from me?" fits the bill pretty well and is reasonably idiomatic.) – Hot Licks Dec 23 '15 at 22:47
  • @HotLicks: If you're thinking about what I think you're thinking, those ways don't communicate the exact shade of meaning I'm looking for. And they might also be too strong. – Meni Rosenfeld Dec 23 '15 at 22:54
  • In your second paragraph, the first sentence, you said, "My first wonder is whether the phrase 'what do you want for me?' has the same connotation . . .." Did you mean to say "for me?" or "from me?"? – rhetorician Dec 23 '15 at 23:03
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    @rhetorician: Sorry, typo (for some reason I often switch from/for). Should be "from me". Fixed now. – Meni Rosenfeld Dec 23 '15 at 23:13
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    Foghorn says, “Go away boy, you bother me. – Jim Dec 23 '15 at 23:47
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I don't really speak Hebrew, but theoretically I should be able to because I studied it in school for over a decade.

In any case, I understand the phrases you have written in your question and can attest that they translate pretty much verbatim to English without loss of meaning. "What do you want from me" essentially asks "What do you expect me to do/say?" I'm having a very hard time searching for definitions because Google is pretty good at matching things regardless of correct spelling and "Whaddaya want from me" is a popular song that saturates my search results.

Your last sentence is not quite grammatically correct, particularly in the conjugation of "want." It would be better written

But the students didn't get it or care much - they just stared at him blankly and wondered what he wanted from them.

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You've painted a pretty vivid picture as to how your saying works in Hebrew, but speaking as an American I'd have to say that generally speaking, Americans are a little more straightforward--shall we say blunt?--in their interactions.

For example, if a person is attempting to give me help which I neither asked for nor want, I might find myself saying,

"Did I ask for your help?"

Or,

"Thanks, but no thanks!"

Or,

"Butt out!"

Or,

"Are you bucking for the Mother Teresa award?"

Or,

"Go help someone who really needs it!"

In other words, the locution "What do you want from me?" wouldn't really be appropriate in that situation.

As for the other scenario you describe, that's a bit more slippery to "translate," as it were. The way I picture it, there might be an air of bewilderment on the person who says, "What do you want from me?" In English, we could say the person looks nonplussed (i.e., to be put at a loss as to what to think, say, or do; to be bewildered).

By implication, the person who says, "What do you want from me?" is bewildered, for example, as to what another person requires of him or her. The bewilderment probably stems from the ask-ee truly not knowing what is expected of/from him or her.

For example, if a friend of mine did some damage with his car to the car of another person, and a few days later that person gets in my face, telling me how my friend damaged his car, I would probably ask, "Well, what do you want from me?" In other words, "Hey, pal, it's not my problem. Get outta my face and go talk to my friend!"

In conclusion, the second scenario is more apt for using the interrogative as you phrase it (via translation into English). As for the first scenario, I think most Americans might use one of the expressions I would use, my favorite of which is

"Did I ask for your help?"

The "Mother Teresa" locution comes in at a close second, however!

  • That's the first time I've heard of Americans being more blunt than Israelis! Common wisdom says it's the other way around. Of course, in Hebrew there are also lots of other phrases which could be used in scenarios like I described, but I was hoping to find an English one that matches the Hebrew phrase I mentioned in all contexts. I guess it's a bit much to hope for, since it has a very specific configuration of connotations. – Meni Rosenfeld Dec 24 '15 at 10:32

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