Croatia's Most Famous Work of Prose in English

Literary translation from Croatian is certainly made more difficult by the complexity of the Croatian language and certain words that tend to become obsolete in time, as they are less and less used in everyday communication. One of such works is Priče iz Davnine (Croatian Tales of Long Ago), which has been translated into twenty languages. We will attempt to discuss and rate the quality of the English translation in this blog post.

Priče iz davnine → Croatian Tales of Long Ago

Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić is one of Croatia's most successful writers, who elevated the use of certain linguistic expressions and through her fairy tales helped preserve certain words in the Croatian language, rendering them less known rather than obsolete. The translation of the collection's title is literal, with the addition of the adjective Croatian, to refer the reader to the spatial and cultural context of the work.

The English audience did not receive the fairy tales as published in their first English edition in 1924 with the expected enthusiasm, but this edition allowed for the Croatian Tales of Long Ago to be translated into other languages: Swedish in 1928 and Danish in 1929. A step toward better sales was the publishing of the US edition, where Ivana's fairy tales were received more warmly.

Gizdavi paunovi haughty peacocks

One of the words that is rarely used in Croatian today is gizdav, meaning richly decorated, lavish. In the fairy tale Regoč, Kosjenka (Curlylocks) created haughty peacocks by discarding a magical pearl. The translation “haughty” here denotes proud, arrogant peacocks, which doesn't match the context of this expression.

Ivana entrusted her youngest brother Želimir with the care of the first English translation of Croatian Tales of Long Ago. He ventured into an international collaboration with the English, completing a massive task, as well as taking upon himself the financial burden of it. Seeing the daunting and time-consuming process of creating an English edition finally complete, Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić was delighted with the end-product.

loboda (a poor people's plant, similar to spinach) → wild spinach

It is considered that the manuscript of the fairy tales was completed in 1915, and they were first published in 1916 by Matica hrvatska. In the first edition, Ivana decided to publish six fairy tales, and here are their titles with English translations:  Kako je Potjeh tražio istinu (How Quest Sought the Truth), Ribar Palunko i njegova žena (Fisherman Plunk and his Wife), Regoč (Reygoch), Šuma Striborova (Stribor's Forest), Bratac Jaglenac i sestrica Rutvica (Little Brother Primrose and Sister Lavender), Sunce djever i Neva Nevičica (Bridesman Sun and Bride Bridekins).

In the fairy tale Fisherman Plunk and his Wife, there is mention of loboda: a leafy plant that grows in mountainous areas, and the seeds, leaves and flowery tips of this plant used to feed both the rich and the poor. Loboda is also often called wild spinach in Croatian, so the literal translation is quite fitting to describe this plant.

Ubogo djevojče (bad off, poor child) → poor girl

Eight years after the Croatian original, the English translation was published in London, and was soon after followed by the Swedish, Czech, Russian and German translations. Croatian Stories of Long Ago is the most published and most translated Croatian collection of prose, but this doesn't make the translators' work any easier. Some of the translations are literal, some were left out, probably because finding a suitable translation was too difficult, and some are mistranslated. Poor girl is a good solution for the English translation, as it conveys the defining feature of the character.

Gvozden (željezan) kljun iron beak

In this text we used the first editions of Croatian Tales of Long Ago in Croatian and English. In her writings, the author used the motifs and names of characters from ancient Slavic mythology, which certainly further increases the challenge of translation into non-Slavic languages in such a way to preserve the true original meaning and convey the proper sense of what was written. The translation iron beak doesn't correspond to the original meaning.

…tako strahovito velik bijaše orijaš Regoč …so terribly big was Reygoch

The core action of translation is to convey a message from the source language into the target language. However, languages differ, and the transfer must be done in a way that the meaning of the message is accurately carried over. Linguistic barriers are why some words were not translated, as is the case in this example.


The names of three brothers in the fairy tale How Quest Sought the Truth, Marun, Ljutiša and Potjeh, were translated as Bluster, Careful and Quest. The translations of the names Jaglenac and Rutvica are Lavender and Primrose, respectively. Bjesomar is Rampogusto, Malik Tintilinić Wee Tintilinkie, vile Zatočnice Votaress Fairies, Neva Nevičica Bride Bridekins, and Mokoš is Mother Muggish. Translating the characters and locations from Slavic mythology is an extra obstacle because this mythology is unknown in non-Slavic languages, and special annotations interpreting less known and unknown words would make the job much easier. The older editions of the fairy tales had no such annotations, whereas the latter have them.

Skut (the hem of a dress) → the hem of her garment

Before the collection was published in Croatian, there were certain linguistic modifications by the publisher, reviewer or the author herself where common ground needed to be found. We believe that this was the starting point in the English translation process as well, especially because Ivana herself participated in it. The translation the hem of her garment suits the context, and the word skut is very rarely used in the Croatian language today.


Šuma Striborova (Stribor's Forest) is Ivana's most famous fairy tale, both in Croatia and beyond its borders. It has been deservedly translated in a host of languages and stands as a pearl of Croatian literature on the international stage. It is one of those rare works in which every line represents the common treasure of Slavic peoples, and its language a true narrative art. Snake-woman is thus one of Ivana's most popular characters, and the literal translation corresponds with the source.

…a žena nijema …and his wife had gone dumb

The collection was written in the early 20th century and the contemporary linguistic standards had a major impact on it, looking from the standpoint of the present-day standard. Regardless, Ivana's language skill makes her even more special and an even better writer.

The first translation became a representative specimen, used to present the work to prospective foreign publishers. In this way, the book became a model for certain editions even before it was printed.

This example also shows that the translation fully conveys the meaning of the original.

Many Croatian literary works have been translated into numerous languages. Sinonim Translation Agency provides high-quality translation services for all types of texts: scientific, professional, literary, business and marketing etc. We know how difficult and challenging translation work can be, as we have often pointed out in our blog posts, including Five Reasons to Hire a Professional for Your Translation, Differences in Translating Literary and Legal Texts and Translating for EU.

You might be interested