Two Slovak Words That Do Not Translate Well

Zmrzlina & Šľahačka

September 22, 2011

By Allan Stevo

Zmrzlina can be a hard to pronounce word for many new to the Slovak language.  This is partly because the first five letters are consonants. It is commonly translated into English as “ice cream,” but that translation can be misleading as it implies that the product is made from cream (a fattier liquid collected from whole milk), while in fact zmrzlina in Slovakia often doesn’t even contain milk, let alone cream.

The main ingredient is sometimes water, but more often vegetable fat (like margarine). The margarine-like vegetable fat is, in fact, the most common ingredient that I have noticed over years of inspecting zmrzlina labels in Slovakia.

While the common English translation of this term is not entirely accurate, the Slovak word used to describe the product is. Zmrzlina in Slovak essentially means “frozen thing” and accurately describes this treat consumed throughout the spring, summer and fall in cities and villages throughout Slovakia.

This translation difficulty is often overlooked, as can be attested to by the fact that every Slovak-English dictionary I’ve looked through to research this article over the last few months conveniently lists “ice cream” as the proper English equivalent – including this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one.  The last one seems to be the most popular Slovak-English dictionary among Slovaks and native speakers of English in Slovakia, as I’ve seen it on bookshelves across the country more than I’ve seen others.

This translation of zmrzlina as “ice cream” is still true to the spirit of the product however – a tasty frozen treat that you carelessly enjoy throughout childhood and at times during adulthood when you feel like something special on a warm day or any time you feel like being extra nice to yourself. In that way the translation is the same.  The words in both languages have a similar purpose, but aren’t exactly the same.  It’s sort of like how “heavy Webster’s Dictionary” and “doorstop,” while not the same thing, may serve the same purpose on a windy day.

As “frozen margarine” would probably sell fewer scoops and would leave some people feeling less happy with the selection of frozen products for sale in Slovakia, this is perhaps a convenient oversight for vendor and consumer alike. With all the chemicals used to (often quite effectively) create the right texture, the sweeteners, and the flavoring, one has to be pretty sensitive to the texture of cream to be able to notice its absence in most zmrzlina-s.

Šľahačka

Šľahačka is often translated into English as “whipped cream,” but like its cousin zmrzlina , it does not often containing cream at all. Just like zmrzlina, it most often contains water and margarine as primary ingredients.

Once again, the error is made in the translation into English as “whipped cream” rather than in the original Slovak. Šľahačka in Slovak, just like zmrzlina, accurately describes the product – literally “something whipped into a foam.”

Sometimes this unnatural texture is  easier to discern than with some of the more carefully designed zmrzlina-s.  Good cream is easy to come by in Slovakia, with fat percentages clearly labeled, and available in many varieties in grocery stores.  The fact that it’s so readily available and used so much in regional cooking helps makes the imitation all the more recognizable. However, it is important to recognize that it’s really only an imitation in the English language.

Šľahačka, sold in spray cans, is meant to be convenient to use, rather than to capture the identical texture of whipped cream. Again, while the translation into English sort of misconstrues what šľahačka is, the Slovak original does not. It is not something that pretends to be a liquid milk product with 33% fat that has been whipped into a foam. It intends to be sweet, easily accessible, and foamy.

The People of Bratislava and Šľahačka

As with many words containing softened letters, I have, through a random sampling, come to the conclusion that a fair portion of the inhabitants of Bratislava do not know how to properly spell the word šľahačka. In much of the rest of Slovakia,  a “ Ľ ” is pronounced differently than an ” L .” This is not always the case in Bratislava.

Of course many people in Bratislava take great care to soften their consonants in accordance with standard Slovak. However, not doing so is common enough for the rest of the Slovaks to have noticed it. From my experience, it is just as common to receive an SMS or email with this product written as “Šlahačka” instead of “Šľahačka.” The fact that so many of the natives of the capital city seem to be unable to grasp the simpler points of the Slovak language is an issue about which the other 95% of Slovaks enjoy joking about incessantly.

Now, as zmrzlina is often considered a difficult to pronounce word for non-Slovaks, I was hoping to find a YouTube video that showed someone trying to pronounce this word, but I had no luck. All I found were bawdy clips from international “candid camera” type shows like this one or this one that air on Slovak television and around Europe. (They are bawdy, so please don’t click on them unless you’re in the mood for humor that wouldn’t fly on American network TV, but is not a problem for broadcast television in Europe.)

Instead of interesting pronunciations of zmrzlina , as I had hoped, what I will leave you with is a video of the Albanian ice cream man on Hviezdoslavovo Namestie in Bratislava doing his schtick.

 

I’ve long speculated about this one, but have never been able to come up with an answer.  In a country like Slovakia that so appreciates fresh foods and appreciates foods free of additives, why is it that it is so hard to find zmrzlina that contains cream?  Milk is an important staple in the Slovak diet and cream is an important ingredient.  Why isn’t zmrzlina that contains cream also part of the summertime custom?  If anyone can help me with that one, I would very kindly appreciate it.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Comments

  • Mary Ann Novak

    Sep 22nd, 2011

    Allan, Your columns are delicious and as mysterious as why zmrzlina does not contain cream! I am heading to a wedding in Bratislava next week, and your writing has kept me connected to my roots and friends there. Thanks!

  • Krema =D

  • It would have been useful to check at least the labels on a fair selection of packaged zmrzlina from a variety of manufacturers in Slovak supermarkets for us to learn what percentage of them, if any, might contain milk solids and milkfat, even cream perhaps?

    The answer, though, is contained in what Alan says:

    “Zmrzlina in Slovak essentially means ‘frozen thing’”

    Precisely, as opposed to English, where the phrase _ice cream_ contains the word _cream_. Why would anyone expect “the frozen thing” to contain cream?

    Cream is only one of a range of ingredients that “the frozen thing” occasionally includes.

    There is no Slovak regulation of the term _zmrzlina_, just as, e.g., there is no U.S. regulation of what a product called “a blueberry muffin” needs to contain. It does not need to contain blueberries and it often doesn’t (the bluish blobs in them are mostly not blueberries) — there is no U.S. law to regulate it.

    Equally, and much more understandably, there is no law in Slovakia requiring that zmrzlina, “the frozen thing,” should contain cream.

    Nor does ice cream as defined by the U.S. Federal regulations need to contain cream. It is defined by a certain minimum percentage and balance of milk solids and milkfat (no less than 10 percent of the latter) among its ingredients. A mixture of skim milk powder and butter oil, for instance, plus non-diary ingredients does qualify as ice cream in the U.S.

    The legal English equivalent of _zmrzlina_ is _frozen dessert_, but we don’t use strict equivalents in everyday speech when they’re technical rather than common, and rightly so. If we did, we couldn’t translate, e.g., _izba_ as _a room_, because izba is only a room one lives in (not a bathroom, office, kitchen, classroom…). People do the same when pairing _zmrzlina_ and _ice cream_, or _treska_ and whatever they may think it’s similar to in the U.S. (Americans often don’t realize _treska_ means “cod”), or…

  • Recently I was there and they seem to be including in the bigger cities gelato tho. Think our people associate cream to unhealthiness and weight gain. That was my perception. Maybe Mary Anne can find out more. Maybe the next blog can be called ‘Why Slovaks hate cream’ lol

  • Allan,
    I find your columns so very interesting and we enjoy them so very much, we even share them with our US friends Joan and Milt, who like your writing very much also.
    Thank you

  • It’s true that many Slovak adults have an aversion to cream and milk. They think it’s unnatural for anyone but children to consume it. Also, gelato does not get as cold as cream-based ice cream does, and if there’s anything Slovaks think is unhealthy, it’s cold food, drinks, or air.

  • A == Thanks for this life-saving exposé! It has changed the course of some of my own Zmrzlina-based research… == M

  • Marek,
    Good to hear. Happy to be of help. Don’t forget me when you write the definitive guide to zmrzlina.
    Allan

  • Stefan,
    This is a funny one – you make a good point about that aversion to the cold. It’s something I’ll need to think more about. Thank you.
    Allan

  • Charlene,
    Thank you for the kind words and thank you for sharing them with others. It means a lot to me.
    Allan

  • Jano,
    Interesting point. I have never noticed the hatred of cream, but it sounds like you and Stefan have a similar perspective on this one. Thank you for the insight.
    Allan

  • Martin,
    Great point about the way that I approached the issue with the assumption that the English translation assumed that cream should be present in zmrzlina. It still seems to me like cream would be an ingredient preferred by Slovak consumers and that somewhere there would be a Slovak brand of zmrzlina that raves about being all natural, or organic, or something like that. So, I am still curious about the issue of why zmrzlina never developed with cream as a main ingredient. Aside from the bias from the English translation, it still seems like an ingredient that would be appreciated by a Slovak consumer.
    Allan

  • Mary Ann,
    Thank you for your kind comment. If you have any interest in writing “a dispatch from a Slovak wedding,” I’d love to read it. I hope you have a great trip next week.
    Allan

  • Fascinating !! I had no idea that Slovakian zmrzlina je bez kremu. And it’s confounding that šl’aháčka doesn’t contain cream !!! The nerve !!! (ha,ha).

    The pronunciation of the Slovakian l’ I compare to the Russian “l + soft sign……Lya !! I know one Slovakian friend from Brati who intonates beautifully. My father, who spent a brief childhood in Bratislava, rarely softened his l’s. And furthermore, Czechs don’t talk like That !! (ha, ha) !! Thanks for the linguistic subtopic, Allan. Always interesting to me in my fav Slavic languages.

    My solution to the lack of cream problem is…….
    Slovakia and the U.S. should change the laws for zmrzlina and ice cream, respectively, and require the products to contain a Large percentage of dairy cream and a miniscule amount of butter oil and vegetable oil !! And serve it moderately cold…when it’s slightly melting. Mmmmm, yummy !!! And I think Slovakian adults should welcome back dairy into their diets. Dobrú chut’ !!

  • Oh….I forgot to add an additional hard-to-pronounce word: žrat, to gobble-up like a dog, to eat up deeply. This word is hard to say in a long sentence. “Ja som žrala zmrzlinu celý den.” (Really, this isn’t entirely true…..)

    Editor’s Note: Cynthia wrote in Slovak “I ate ice cream all day.”

  • So I asked my mother and the closest thing to cream is SMOTANA

  • Say, how do we put our photo up. I hate being shadow square=)

  • Jano,
    Thank you for the translation.
    About the photo, Martin seems to be a good candidate to ask about that one. He is the only person in this comments section to have a photo. Perhaps he knows how to intentionally add them. Mine magically appeared one day. I’m not quite sure how, but I think it’s because I’m using WordPress software to power this website, and that there’s some database somewhere that I once submitted to that connects my photo with my email address.

    This photo that appears next to my comments, I believe is called an “avatar” and someone came up with the sort of big brotherish idea once – instead of having to upload an Avatar (a photo or logo) for every website I go on, why not just have a system that will put up your avatar every time you comment on any website anywhere around the globe. That system was named Gravatar for “Globally Recognized avatar.”

    I think that if you go to the Gravatar website (http://en.gravatar.com/) and register your email address, and connect a photo to is (a gravatar) then every time you use that email address to comment on this website, you will from that point forward have your photo appear on this site next to your comments when you comment. I think that’s how it works.

    If anyone out there reading this has any other input on this issue (especially if you’ve recognized something incorrect in what I’ve told Jano) please do comment.

    Thanks for asking Jano. Your desire to not just be shadow square sounds pretty good to me.

    Allan

  • Cynthia,
    I like the other hard to pronounce word. When Slovaks have used that word around me, they almost always seem to do it with a laugh, as if there was something a little disobedient in letting that word leave ones mouth.
    Allan

  • Cynthia,
    That’s interesting about your father’s soft L’s not being soft. Also interesting that you knew the language so well to be able to pick that up. That takes some effort to get to that level. Your experience seems to be similar to mine – some people from Bratislava use soft L’s some people don’t.

    As for your suggestion of eating ice cream that’s got lots of dairy cream just at the point where it’s melting – yumm! I like the zmrzlina here, but I like the texture of real cream even better. I’ve gotten around ways to replicate some of the tastes of home when I miss them, but ice cream I haven’t figured out yet and my first attempt at home made ice cream this summer was unsuccessful. After your mention of the melting ice cream, I must admit I’d sort of like a bit of my favorite ice cream right now.

    Thank you Cynthia.

    Allan

  • Ethel Ann Smith

    Sep 26th, 2011

    Allan –
    Great article—Of course, being that ice cream is one of my favorites, I was ready to jump into the screen and have some of that declicious Zmrzlina/Sl’ahacka .The presentation is just beautiful. The video was enjoyable — the ice cream man is sure a good performer. ..He made all his customers laugh. Ethel Ann

  • Ethel Ann,
    Thank you. It’s more fun to watch that ice cream man pull his antics on others than to have them pulled on you, but it’s also fun to have them pulled on you. There are 40 people behind you in line, you’re digging through your change still not sure which are the 10 cent coins and which are the 20 cent coins, you reach out your hand without looking and suddenly there’s is an upside ice cream cone or empty ice cream cone there and you remember “Oh yeah, the owner is working today, of course there’s an upside down ice cream cone in my hand.” It sort of reminds you to laugh at yourself every once in a while and an ice cream cone tastes better after a good laugh. Thank you, Ethel Ann, for your note.
    Allan

  • Whao dobre vidiet moje ludja busy. Just came back and wahatta whallop here lol. Yes first thing I noticed was Stefan he made me realize I’m rather averted from eating ice cream. In Kosice I can only imagine my face when a relative (female) handed me a cone lol. I wanted pivo and maso but I ate it and then I bought pivo and maso =D

  • We could have a whole blog on pronounciation’s and dialects. Heard czech polish german mixed in with my slovak and I later in life knew all the differences. (between the slavic ones) could speak all that and goral. I felt so complete in my slovak And then I became friends with rusnaky and was introduced to staro sloviansky thanks very much lol now thats leading me into ukrainian n russian enough altready! It’ds fine but with those pivos it all mixes up again and it’s horrible=S lol

  • Oh just came to me what if it’s those who have a yahoo account is why there pictures magically come?? I just deleted mine cause I don’t like there format but think we should make dummy accounts just for this so we see who we’re talking with. Vies nase we’re warm like that lol and I promise you we are the warmest on earth! I met a guy at work job I had he said he learned in school about us in Africa that we are the nicest and he wanted to visit our country.

  • Yahoo doers have that cool steampunk widget admittingly I will enjoy that

  • The word Šľahačka is very rarely pronounced with the caroned L; it’s not that people don’t know how to spell it, but we just chose not to pronounce it that way because it’s too formal and may sound a little odd. The caroned L is mainly pronounced as one on the news and such. It’s sort of like a silent letter, except it’s a silent accent, even though some choose to pronounce it. (I’ve been speaking Slovak my whole life, I know what I’m talking about)

  • Ok I tried, looks like we’re stuck with shadow square=)

  • Think I saw it in a store written even with no L. I’m not used to that though sounds like sačka to me…

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