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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It’s All in the Eyes

Заочно: distance, virtual, off-site, not in person

Заочно (literally, “beyond the eye”) is a lovely word that is very satisfying to pronounce. All those big open vowel sounds make it sound like a luxurious, extended yawn, or maybe like something you croon under the moon in June. It’s a very handy word, too, once you get accustomed to its range of meanings.

The word comes from око (eye), an old-fashioned word that you might know from the Biblical quote “око за око” (an eye for an eye). You surely know the plural form from the pre-revolutionary torch song “Очи чёрные” (usually rendered “Dark Eyes”), which students belt out with dubious authenticity in Russian 101. Add the prefix за- (beyond) and you get the sense of something being done or happening “beyond the eyes,” i.e., not within visual range or in person.

Once you know that, you can usually figure out what people are talking about when they combine it, or its adjective заочный, with other words. In the past when translating the word, you generally had to be more specific in English than in Russian. Today you have to fight your impulse to use the word “virtual” all the time.  

For example, someone might say: С Иваном Ивановичем мы были заочно знакомы, беседо-вали по телефону, собирались встретиться, но, увы, как всегда, не хватало времени. (I had a long-distance friendship with Ivan Ivanovich. We talked on the phone and planned to meet, but, alas, as usual there wasn’t enough time.) Here you could use the phrase “virtual relationship,” but probably not if the speaker is an 80-year-old gentleman.

You hear and see заочно often in the context of education: every school in Russia — and the world — seems to be offering заочное образование/обучение. This is any kind of schooling where the student doesn’t need to show up in person, which in English might be distance learning, extramural studies, external program, remote learning or home study. Заочные курсы might be extension or corresponding courses, and студент-заочник might be an off-campus, off-site, online, extension or extramural student. Заочный институт might be a correspondence institute/school.

Заочное голосование can be translated as absentee voting, voting by mail-in ballots, or in high-tech countries — online voting.

In the courtroom, processes that take place заочно are usually described as being in absentia. For example: Он получил заочный приговор. (He was sentenced in absentia.) If the defendant doesn’t show up for the court proceedings, you can say there was заочное решение суда в пользу истца (judgment by/in default, default judgment in favor of the plaintiff).

In business, companies might advertise for bids on a project and specify: конкурсные заявки рассматриваются заочно (literally, competition applications are reviewed without the presence of the person). Here the idea is that a bidder doesn’t have to make a personal pitch to the contracting company. In English I think you’d be likely to specify: online bidding, bids accepted in written form, or even: bids reviewed without personal interviews.

In these days of corporate fiscal responsibility — or rather, today when firms have to make a show of corporate fiscal responsibility — companies are announcing: собрание проводится в заочной форме. Today most people would say the company holds virtual meetings, but I’d probably say: the company holds meetings via web- or teleconferencing; the company holds meetings online. Because otherwise, with virtual students, virtual education, virtual voting, virtual bidding and virtual meetings, you begin to wonder if there’s anything real anymore.

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