Untranslatable Serbian Phrases: Words and Expressions That Escape Translation

A blue question mark on a pink background.

Does your language have those phrases that are easy to understand, but once you try to translate them, you get stuck? It’s like Japanese komorebi — the sunlight seen through the leaves or German waldensamkeit, which has something to do with being alone in the forest and loving it. Of course, there’s a fair share of untranslatable Serbian phrases, too. Although, not all of them are so poetic.

Luckily, the fact that we can’t translate them doesn’t mean we can’t explain them. So that’s exactly what we’ll do in this article — introduce untranslatable Serbian phrases and clarify their meanings. Let’s begin!

Untranslatable Serbian Phrases

Naturally, there are many phrases that, when directly translated into English, sound beyond silly. For example, Mešaš babe i žabe would be — You’re mixing grandmothers and frogs. Funny, right? That being said, there’s a phrase that perfectly corresponds to it — mixing apples and oranges.

That’s why, in this article, we’ll only list words and phrases for which we can’t find an English counterpart.

1. Merak

In a nutshell, merak is a kind of pleasure we get from little things. Imagine coming home after a long day at work, opening a can of beer (or whatever you like to drink), and simply chilling with your favorite music. Well, what you’re feeling at the moment is merak.

To be fair, this word isn’t originally Serbian. It came from the Turkish language, but it definitely became a part of the Serbian language and identity.

Now, let’s see how you can use it:

Baš mi je merak kad odem u kafanu sa drugovima.

(I feel so nice when I go to kafana with friends.)

Legs in brown stockings, a book, and a mug of coffee.
Merak 🙂

2. Inat

Inat is similar to the English word spite. It’s when you’re doing something even if it harms you, just to spite someone. However, this translation doesn’t fully cover it. More precisely, the word inat means to be spiteful and proud about it. Even though it’s not the healthiest mindset, it’s a big part of Serbian identity.

For example:

Foreign friend: Zašto ga ne pozoveš i ne kažeš mu da ga voliš?

(Why don’t you call him and tell him that you love him?)

Serbian friend: Neću, iz inata!

(I won’t, out of spite!)

On the plus side, inat can sometimes be a source of motivation:

Mom: Nikad nećeš položiti ispit.

(You’ll never pass the exam.)

You (with large amounts of inat): Videćeš!

(You’ll see!)

3. Da komšiji crkne krava

This phrase illustrates another not-so-attractive side of Serbian mentality, although it’s not as pervasive as the previous one. In any case, it literally means Let the neighbor’s cow die, but it’s not really about farm animals.

It depicts envy of others doing well and satisfaction when bad things happen to them. Again, not all people think this way, but those who do would rather see others unhappy than be happy themselves.

4. Onomad

Basically, onomad means some time in the past. The problem with this phrase is it doesn’t specify when something happened. It could be yesterday, the day before, or a month ago. There’s no way to know.

So, if someone responds to you with onomad when you’re asking for a specific time, it can be really annoying. For example:

Wife: Kad si si zalio cveće? Nešto mi je suvo.

(When did you water the flowers? It seems kinda dry.)

Husband: Onomad.

(Unspecified time ago, ranging from one day to several months.)

Wife: 😡

5. Ganjam papire

Have you ever chased papers? If you’ve been to Serbia, you probably have. To clarify, in this case, papers are documents, like birth certificates, for instance. Ganjam means to chase something or someone in a persistent manner. So, the whole phrase means I am trying to gather my documents.

But, as you may know, dealing with any administrative task in Serbia can be painstaking. You typically need to go from one office to another trying to gather the necessary documents. And in the end, there’s always something missing. Hence the phrase — ganjam papire.

For example:

Friend: Hoćeš na kafu?

(Do you want to grab a coffee?)

You. Ne mogu, ganjam papire ceo dan.

(I can’t, I’ve been gathering documents all day long.)

6. Nisu mi sve ovce na broju

Not all my sheep are in the flock? Expectedly, this phrase has nothing to do with sheep. Instead, you can use it to describe the feeling that something feels off with you, but you can’t put a finger on it.

We’ve all had days when we can’t seem to do anything right for no reason at all. Well, that’s exactly what this expression is about.

Friend: Šta ti je danas? Čudno se ponašaš.

(What’s up with you today? You’re acting weird.)

You: Nisu mi sve ovce na broju.

A woman holding her head looking confused.
Nisu mi sve ovce na broju 😕

7. Šatro

We can’t translate this word because it doesn’t have its own meaning. Instead, it has the power to negate everything you say after it and discard it as a pretense. For example:

On je šatro ljut.

(He is šatro angry.)

It means he’s not angry but pretending to be.

Kupio je šatro dobar auto.

(He bought a šatro good car.)

If you say this, it means that you think his car isn’t, in fact, good, even if it may seem that way.

8. Ispravljati krive Drine

First of all, Drina is a river in Serbia. And as is often the case with rivers, this one doesn’t flow in a straight line. Obviously, trying to strengthen a river (the literal translation of the phrase) is impossible, and everyone knows it.

So, if you’re trying to fix something unfixable or right a wrong even though you know that your efforts are in vain, you’re doing what this expression suggests. In most cases, people with a strong sense of justice and fairness are those who do this.

For example, if you have a friend who’s always getting into trouble, and no matter how much you try to help them, they always end up making the same mistakes, then someone might ask you:

Zašto ispravljaš krive Drine?

(Why are you trying to fix the unfixable?)

9. Bre

Despite being one of the untranslatable Serbian phrases, bre is extremely common. If you’ve listened to a conversation between two Serbs even once, chances are you’ve heard it.

Bre is an interjection, and the reason we can’t translate is that it doesn’t actually have a meaning. Instead, it intensifies and gives the edge to what you say before or after it. As such, it can help you express your emotions — either positive or negative. To help you understand, here’s an example:

Smaraš me.

(You’re bothering me.)

Smaraš me, bre!

(You’re bothering me, and it’s making me angry.)

With that said, keep in mind that bre is extremely informal and inappropriate for formal contexts. Anyway, this word is very versatile, so if you want to learn all how you can use it, we have a whole article dedicated to it.

A man and a woman hugging.
Volim te, bre! 🥰

Finding More Untranslatable Serbian Phrases

Although we’ve lost ourselves in translation, we’ve made it until the end of the article. Still, this is not a complete list, and there are many more untranslatable Serbian phrases out there.

If you come across such expressions, you can talk about them with Serbian friends — or, even better, you can join our group Serbian classes. That way, you get to discuss these phrases and many other things with fellow learners and our teachers from the comfort of your home.

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