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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chewing the Fat

Жирный кусок: the juiciest chunk, a plum, a choice piece, a big fat wedge of the pie

You know things are getting pretty weird in Russian politics when you find yourself agreeing with Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Or maybe it’s a sign that it’s time to take a break from Russia. In my case, it’s probably simpler to explain. When you live next door to the construction project from hell —now in Year Three — and entertain yourself by ticking off the laws being broken day and night, you can’t help but cheer criticism of the capital city’s governance.

During a speech last week before the State Duma, Zhirinovsky accused Mayor Yury Luzhkov of many crimes, including giving “самые жирные куски” (prime real estate; literally “the fattest chunks”) to his alleged foreign masters (хозяева за рубежом). Prime Minister Vladimir Putin responded with arch ambiguity. “С чего бы это Лужков хотел отдать самые жирные куски? … Вы себе представляете Лужкова, который отдаёт самые жирные куски? Думаю, что Владимир Вольфович заблуждается.” (Why on earth would Luzhkov want to give away the choicest parcels of land? … Can you imagine Luzhkov giving away the choicest parcels? I think Vladimir Volfovich is mistaken.” Judging by the laughter in the chamber, a lot of deputies understood the implication: The honorable Mayor Luzhkov doesn’t give prime real estate to anyone; he keeps it for himself.

These жирные куски can give the translator a hard time. Жирный can refer to something fatty, like жирное мясо (fatty meat); or something greasy, like жирные волосы (greasy hair); or, less commonly, something filled with good things, like жирная земля (rich land); or something thick, like жирный шрифт (boldface). I asked native Russian speakers which meaning of жирный predominated in the phrase жирный кусок. They all stammered that it was more or less all of the above — a big, fat, juicy, succulent, choice, prized, profitable, rich and desirable chunk of something.

This means that you usually need to be more specific when translating this phrase into English. Она обязательно наложит свою лапку на жирный кусок наследства (She’s sure to put her paws on a big chunk of the inheritance). Самые жирные куски государственной собственности были отданы за бесценок (The choicest state properties were handed over at bargain basement prices).

Another little piece of Russian is similar to жирный кусок. Лакомый кусочек is usually smaller — note the diminutive ending — and sweeter. Лакомство is a tasty delicacy. Unadorned and in the plural, it means sweets or candies. But since “delicious” is in the eye of the beholder, in pet food stores you can find лакомства для собак (dog treats), which are definitely not sweet and decidedly not tasty to humans. Лакомство is related to the verb лакать (to slurp or lap up something) and has the sense of something you drool over.

Sometimes this is easy to translate. Самый лакомый кусочек — внукам (The grandchildren are given the tastiest morsel). But writers use the phrase figuratively to refer to anything seductively attractive, sometimes regardless of size. Here it’s hard for the translator to distinguish between fat chunks and exquisite tidbits. Земля в городе Чехове — самый лакомый кусочек Подмосковья (Property in the city of Chekhov is the most sought-after land near Moscow). Этот огромный дом в центре города — лакомый кусочек для инвесторов (This huge building in the city center has investors drooling).

So if you see a кусок or кусочек, try to get a piece of the action.

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