Croats – Lost in Translation

Total Croatia News

If you’ve ever spent more than 10 minutes waiting for someone at Ban Jelačić Square on a cold winter evening, you know just how little your coat means to the ice-cold northern wind blowing mercilessly from Sljeme.
There I was, ten… twelve… Ok, fifteen years ago, waiting for my friend by the clock. I was a fresh-faced first year student who had just moved to the big city from her small town nearby. Wearing full make-up, I was tapping my feet in high heels and freezing to death because my friend Ana from Korčula was late.

We said we would meet at pola sedam (literal translation would be “half seven”; not the British expression “half seven”, meaning half past seven, but half an hour before seven; i.e. 6:30 p.m.).
It was 6:35 and Ana was nowhere to be found. Half an hour later, my hairstyle completely ruined by the wind, I decided to give up and go home.

I met Ana the following day.
– Where were you yesterday? I froze to death at the Square! – I snapped at her.
– Where was I?? Where were you?? I was there at exactly sedam i po (half past seven), and you weren’t there! – Ana said.

Ana said a bunch of other things, but I didn’t understand anything because they were spoken in Korčula dialect, which she switched to automatically when she got angry. And that’s the story of how Ana and I got lost in translation. And it’s also the story about how I learnt that 6:30 is pola sedam in Zagreb, but šest i po in Dalmatia. And, even though it sounds very similar, pola sedam is not sedam i po.

Croatia is a beautiful little country where an impressive number of equally beautiful dialects, causing confusion to its speakers, has developed over time.
However, the “What time is it?” misunderstanding is the least of our problems.

The richness of our language can get your into some serious trouble, the romantic kind.
I turned into a drama queen during my university days when a Dalmatian colleague of mine, whom I’d been secretly in love for months, told my roommate to tell me that he thought I was – smišna. (smiješna/smišna – ridiculous).

I spent an entire afternoon in my room, depressed, analyzing what was this ridiculous thing I’d done to earn it.
Ana came over that evening and explained that smišna meant cute or sweet in Dalmatia.

But, again, being smišan (cute) or smiješan (ridiculous) is not our biggest problem.

The problem is that there are certain textbook words you’ll only hear TV anchors or strict Croatian professors say.
To illustrate, let’s take a moment and think about the world perilica.
Prati rublje means “to wash clothes”, and perilica is the word we use for the “washing machine.” – they’ll explain at your Croatian course.

Just as hladno is cold, so hladnjak would be the refrigerator.
Odvijač, surely everyone knows, is a screw-driver.
Very practical, yes? Well, no. Try mentioning these words to any average person from central Croatia and they’ll explain that
perilica is vešmašina
hladnjak is frižider
and odvijač is šerafciger.

And so you keep repeating to yourself šerafciger, šerafciger, šerafciger and then you come to the seaside.
Šerafciger?? There’s no such thing. Any respectable Dalmatian person wouldn’t be caught dead saying šerafciger. It’s kacavida!
And what about odvijač? Leave it in the dictionary. It’s the only place you’ll find it anyway.

And no, it doesn’t stop at vešmašina and šerafciger.

Here’s what happened to my handsome Dalmatian on our first date.
I decided to give him another shot after Ana had explained that the smišna misunderstanding. We went out for drinks one spring night. You know how first dates are, everyone’s a little nervous. He waved his hand and spilled his coffee.
– Ajme! These are my new gaće (underpants)! – he cried out.
– This guy’s insane, why is he talking about his underpants on our first date?? – I thought to myself.

I ended the date without a second thought. If I had known what I know now, that gaće means “jeans” or “pants” in Dalmatia, maybe I’d be writing this looking out from my window at my beach house. That’s fate for you.

It’s a well-known fact that Croats have at least ten different names for every single thing imaginable. The word šeflja (ladle) is the absolute winner, a.k.a. šefarka, zaimača, kutlača, paljak, kaciol, grabljač, susak… or simply – ono za juhu (“the thing for the soup”) – as my son likes to call it.

How on Earth do we expect foreigners to understand our beautiful language when we often can’t understand each other?

Sometimes I think foreigners understand Croatian better than we Croats do because loanwords, that we love using, help a lot.

More on that next time, now I have to hurry because I’m meeting Ana at pola 5. Or was 5 i po??


Find out more about confusing Croatian expressions and when exactly Ana wanted to meet here.



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