Approve That!

Визировать: endorse, sign, sign off on

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Bиза (visa) is an odd thing. It's just a piece of paper, or a stamp, or a scribbled notation. But without it, a person can't get from one place to another. It's the legal equivalent of the transporter beam in "Star Trek" -- it's what allows you to be beamed to the Starship USA or RF.

The word comes to both English and Russian from Latin via the French. The original phrase in Latin was charta visa (verified paper; literally, "paper that has been seen"). Most commonly today we think of виза as that magical stamp or hologram-decorated, sticky-backed paper in your passport that gives you the right to enter a country. In this case, some person or computer in the bowels of some official building some place has "seen" your documents and decided that you are not a threat.

But in Russian, виза, or more commonly the verb визировать (endorse, sign, approve), can be used in reference to other documents. When Russian documents wend their way up the chain of command at a ministry or a business, they get a "visa" to keep moving up at every level. By the time an important document gets to the top guy or gal, it may have a page of scribbled signatures attached. I have been told that the folks at the top rarely read the document -- they just glance at the signatures. Все завизировали его? Тогда я подпишу (Has everyone signed off on this? Then I'll sign it). In business, the CEO won't sign something unless the CFO has already put his or her John or Jane Hancockov on it. Главбух должен визировать каждый договор (The chief accountant must sign off on every contract).

In Russian, you don't have to sign something to show your approval. You can also give things: Дать добро (to give the OK), отмашку (signal), and зелёный свет (green light). Власти дали добро на стройку в Серебряном бору (The authorities gave the OK for construction in Silver Pines). Дать отмашку originally meant giving a nautical signal by flag or lantern to a passing ship. Today it means giving permission for something to happen. Минздрав дал отмашку начинать тендер по выбору поставщиков лекарств (The Health Ministry gave the OK to start accepting bids from drug supply companies). The phrase дать зелёный свет appeared only with traffic lights, perhaps via English. For some reason, you don't give a red light (дать красный свет) in Russian or in English, except with tongue in cheek. But both languages do use another vehicular phrase to mean stopping something: to put on the brakes (тормозить). Со стороны власти предпринимались попытки тормозить развитие СМИ (There were attempts by the government to put the brakes on mass media development).

Another verb of approval is plain old одобрять/одобрить (to approve). Власти одобрили план развития на пять лет вперёд (The government approved a five-year development plan). You may also hear одобрям-с. This is a conflated from of одобряем-с, the pre-Revolutionary form of "we approve" (the "с" is short for сударь, a polite form of address similar to the English "sir.") Most of the time you hear this jokingly: Я попробовала торт. Одобрям-с! (I tasted the cake. I give it my seal of approval!) But it also seems to have some cosmic meaning for Russians: It can mean any blindly obedient yea-saying. One journalist moans: Крепко в нашем менталитете укоренилось неодолимое русское "одобрям-с" (The invincible Russian "yes-man" mentality is deeply rooted in us). Another journalist complains about a political party that has been dubbed "Одобрям-с" because all their members say "yes" to any law that comes up for vote.

The "yes-man" mentality might be a very harmful national trait. But when you put in a visa application, that's exactly what you want to hear: Одобрям-с!

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.