The Millionaire Translators of Montenegro

Tivat is different from the rest of Montenegro: more glitzy, more shiny, more expensive, more show-off. All the things I don’t like. I only go there regularly because I am trying to visit the Maritime Museum in Tivat, but it’s closed every time.

The last time, when I had a few hours to kill before the bus back to Kotor (on a nice day, you can also walk across Vrmac), I strolled along the waterfront, looking at boats. In Tivat, they don’t have real boats with cranes and containers and sailors and guns and turrets. No, they just have toy boats. Fancy toys, but no match even for the navies of Austria or Bolivia.

boat1.JPG

“Who buys such toys?” I wondered, and the answer is the same as for all other toys, like expensive cars, houses, phones and a second handbag: people who have too much money and a boring job. Drug dealers, money launderers, lawyers probably. Then I remembered that I was a lawyer, too, and that having a chat with some of the boats’ owners might be interesting.

Thus, I ventured into one of their bars (again, those in real ports like Monrovia or Dar-es-Salaam are more interesting) and looked for people who look like yacht-owners. Men, their shoes and clothes too white, as if to stress their cultural whiteness, sweaters in burgundy red or navy blue thrown over their shoulders, seemingly captivated by the little screens in their hands, but really bored, because the second I walked through the door, they all looked up simultaneously, hoping to spot an attractive woman. My looks disappointed, I couldn’t help but notice, but I was too quick. Using that split-second chance to build upon the visual connection, I cheerily greeted them: “Good afternoon, gentlemen”.

Two of them looked down on their phones, but the other two were still polite (maybe they had only recently become millionaires), returning a “hello”, even with a smile. Not having thought of a more sophisticated approach, or too occupied by maritime metaphors, I barged right in: “Are those ships outside yours?”, knowing quite well that four guys couldn’t possibly own all 60-or-so boats in the harbor.

“They are indeed,” they replied, not without some pride. Luckily, human beings are simple. If they own stuff, they like to talk about that stuff. So I just needed to ask a few questions, “which one is yours?”, “where do you go with it?”, “how long have you had it?”, “how many people can sleep on it?” and they all got excited enough to tell me everything in exact knots and fathoms and leagues.

I was curious to find out how these guys could afford their boats, so I asked: “What work do you that you can sail around the world all the time?”, although it should later turn out that they mostly sail to Bar or Herceg Novi, which they could more easily reach by bus.

“We are translators,” Marko replied, leaving me stunned, because I am a translator too, and I can’t even afford a bicycle, let alone a yacht. I explained my surprise and Mirko, Marko’s colleague, asked me what languages I translate.

“Only English and German,” I had to admit, ashamed.

They looked at me with pity, as if they were the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra of 1966 and I was a small girl with a flute, knocking on the door and saying “I want to play music too.”

“So, which languages do you all translate?” I asked, bracing myself for a list of five languages each, from Icelandic to Swahili. But like in a play that they had performed many times before, each of them mentioned just one language, fired like four consecutive and impeccably timed shots.

“Croatian.”

“Serbian.”

“Bosnian.”

“Montenegrin.”

Coinciding with the last syllable of the last language, they all had a broad grin on their faces.

“And English, obviously,” I added, for we had been conversing in that language.

“Oh, we also speak German, French and Italian,” Duško added matter-of-factly, “but that’s really not relevant for our translation business. We only translate between Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin.”

“But,” I interjected, because I prepared myself and my readers before moving to Montenegro, “that’s all Serbo-Croatian. Everybody who speaks one language understands all the others. Why …”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Now it was Ivo, the Croat, interrupting me. “Each of these languages is a distinct language. Each nation has its own territory, its own people, its own history and its own culture and language. Until not too long ago,” he added dramatically, “people died while fighting for the right to speak their own language.” Even two of his friends were looking a bit uneasy at this. I, thinking that people often choose to die for rather silly things, but not wishing to upset anyone who lost an uncle or a father or a leg in the many Yugoslav wars, was looking a bit lost myself.

Baaaam!

Ivo slammed his flat hand on the table, breaking out in laughter: “Hahaha, just kidding, man! Sit down and we’ll explain it to you.”

Uff! I was relieved as if we all had just signed the Dayton Agreement.

“Do you smoke?” Mirko asked and slid a pack of cigarettes across the table. In Montenegro, you can still smoke in restaurants and bars. “And take a look at the warning label,” he instructed me, as if I should seriously think about the threat of lung cancer before lighting up.

Pušenje ubija,” it said, “smoking kills”. But in three languages. Or three times in the same language?

The first one is Bosnian, the second Croatian, or maybe the other way round. Nobody knows. Can you see the difference between the two? No, me neither.

The last one is Serbian, written in Cyrillic, but it says exactly the same: “Pušenje ubija.”

“You are old enough to remember the Yugoslav wars?” Duško asked, kindly overlooking my grey hair.

“Yes.”

“Well, then you know that many people died. Many people lost their homes, many lost families, some even split from their wives or husbands because they were Serbian or Croatian and suddenly didn’t get along anymore. Until a year before, they had all been happy Yugoslavs and one day, whoom, everything changed and they destroyed a beautiful country. But in the end,” he continued, the others lowering their gaze and looking somber, “all the borders remained like they had been in Yugoslav times. Nobody had gained anything.”

“Except independence.”

“Yes, but Yugoslavia was finished anyway, just like the Soviet Union or East Germany. It was economics, nobody needed a war for that. But people don’t fight against inflation or for productivity, they don’t care about trade balances or the GDP. People only fight for concepts like fatherland and mother tongue, although their fathers and mothers had built a single nation with all the other fathers and mothers.”

“It all started with Croatia,” Ivo said, almost proud. “We were the first to ditch Serbo-Croatian, or Croato-Serbian as we had always called it. Of course we still spoke as we spoke before, but suddenly we called it Croatian and pretended that it was completely different from Serbian.”

“And there are some minor differences,” Mirko conceded, “regional variations, like you have between British and American English or between Austrian German and German German. They are mutually intelligible, but during the break-up, nationalists suddenly stressed the few words that were different. It would be like someone arguing that Austrian and German are completely different languages because the Austrians say ‘Paradeiser’ where you say ‘Tomate’.”

I had never heard that Austrians have a different word for ‘tomato’, but I knew that in Serbo-Croatian, the vegetable is called ‘paradajz‘, confirming a long-held suspicion that Austria is actually part of the Balkans.

boat2.JPG

“But if everybody could still understand everybody else, why would anyone need translators?” I asked.

“Because nationalists are so stupid that they believe the nonsense they sprout. So, suddenly, the Croatian government couldn’t read documents or newspapers from Serbia anymore. Soon thereafter, Bosnia-Herzegovina wanted to be independent as well, called its language Bosnian and couldn’t read or write in Serbian or Croatian anymore.”

“And that’s where we came in,” Marko continued. “We came from different parts of Yugoslavia and were studying philology in Nikšić in the 1990s. We were happy to be in Montenegro because this was really the most relaxed part of Yugoslavia, where no Serb would shoot at a Croat, no Croat at a Bosniak, and nobody even at an Albanian. Maybe it was the Nikšić beer that kept everyone peaceful, I don’t know. But we were close to graduation and we sure as hell didn’t want to die for Vukovar or Sarajevo. Out of pure fun, and maybe desperation, we opened our own company of translators, offering to translate Serbian, Croatian and later Bosnian. It was actually meant as a means of protest, to show how silly that linguistic nationalism was.”

“And, did anyone hire you?” I asked, suspecting the answer as I glanced out at the boats moored in the marina.

“Yes!! Like crazy! We couldn’t believe it! Immediately after we sent out offers to government agencies, municipalities, publishing houses and so on, we got more work than we could handle. Nobody in Croatia wanted to read anything in Serbian anymore, so we had to translate laws, announcements, press releases, newspapers. All we had to do was to transcribe the Cyrillic letters into Latin letters. Of course we outsourced all that work to the younger students at the faculty, whom we paid a little bit.”

“And it got even better when the war moved to Bosnia, because there was suddenly a third language, which was in reality basically identical to Croat. Sometimes we just changed some words to justify our invoices.”

“So if the languages are now really different, it’s actually your fault?”, I joked.

“You could say so,” Mirko smiled. “But we have the same excuse as the people who supplied arms and ammunition: If we hadn’t done it, somebody else would have done it.”

boat3.JPG

“It got even funnier when IFOR and SFOR came to Bosnia-Herzegovina after 1995. We offered our services as interpreters and they always had to pay at least for two of us, because we would say that only one of us spoke Bosnian and the other one Serbian, for example. We got to ride around in Humvees and sometimes even in helicopters, it was great fun.”

“Until we saw the first dead bodies,” Ivo remarked, and the whole table fell silent.

Trying to cheer things up, Duško said: “Remember that one time when there was a Spanish NATO soldier who had been born in Croatia? He didn’t buy our bullshit, of course. But what was worse, he thought we were nationalistic idiots ourselves, refusing to understand the other ‘languages’. We had to tell him that we were just in it for the money.”

“Luckily, he was a cool guy. ‘Well, the more money these new countries here spend on translators, the less they can spend on landmines,’ he said. But we had to pay him off.”

“So you must have been the only people in ex-Yugoslavia who were not happy when the wars were over?”, I tried to joke.

“Believe me, there were many people not happy about it, and they were earning much more than us.” How naive my question had been, how little I knew and how different our lives had been, just because I had been born 1000 km to the north. They had made millions, but lost their country, their innocence and their belief in humanity.

“And the work was actually not over, because all these new countries needed to renegotiate international treaties and wanted translations of the old treaties concluded by Yugoslavia. Then there was the EU accession of Croatia. And then came the internet and every town wanted to have a website. In Bosnia, this is the best business, because they want to have their websites in Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and sometimes in English. We can charge for three translations.”

“This is an ongoing business,” added Duško. “We have a contract with the City of Mostar, for example. They have one of those quadrilingual websites. They don’t even realize that it’s exactly the same, because the Bosnian mayor only ever looks at the Bosnian version, his Serb colleague only at the Serbian version, and the Croat one only at the Croatian version. But Bosnia-Herzegovina is a messed-up state anyway. Even if they want to plant trees in a park, they will hire three gardeners from the three ethnicities.”

“And thank God for Montenegro!” Marko explained it: “In 2006, Montenegro was the last state to become independent, and in 2009 they added two new letters to the alphabet and called it ‘Montenegrin’. Of course we were the first to apply for all the ‘translations’, and because we had studied in Montenegro, we got that contract. So now, all we do is add diacritical marks to the S and the Z, and the Republic of Montenegro is happy.”

“Thank God also for Croatia!”, Ivo added. “With Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia applying to enter the EU, guess who insists on all their documents being translated into Croatian? We will have work for years to come.”

“But there is a danger on the horizon!” Mirko sounded worried. “A group of linguists have just published a manifesto, explaining that our four languages are actually just regional variants of one language. They even pointed to the burden of translation costs, directly attacking our business model.”

“And to be honest,” added Marko, “they are right. But luckily for us, such decisions are not made by professors and scientists, but by politicians.”

Živjeli!” They all raised their glasses, and I was happy about having learned a lot and that at least some of the profiteers of the ex-Yugoslav wars were quite nice guys. But I still didn’t understand what was the point of buying boats if you never used them to go to Fiji or Easter Island. Maybe living in countries that constantly split up makes you worried about being gone for too long.

boat4.JPG

(Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Geschichte, erstellt in mühsamer und unbezahlter Übersetzerarbeit.)

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Fiction, History, Language, Montenegro, Photography, Politics, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

86 Responses to The Millionaire Translators of Montenegro

  1. Snart says:

    Andreas, this is the funniest absurdity I have ever read about and giggled all the way through it.

  2. Rosa Galitis says:

    Great article indeed! The money-making machines that war triggers. The suffering of some is the joy of others. Karfiol, Paradeiser, Ordination, Spital, you will have fun!

  3. Interesting. My friend is a Bosnian translator for IFOR/SFOR/EUFOR since 1996 in Sarajevo. I will have to ask his thoughts on this.

  4. Caren Leong says:

    This piece is wonderful.

  5. Very interesting! If I haven’t read your blog I would say, the owners of those Yachts were Russian’s. -;)

    • Actually, many boats are probably owned by Russians. But they don’t move them around either. I still don’t quite get the point of buying a boat and then leaving it in port all the time.

    • In that case, maybe they do buy & sell -:) By putting ourselves into their shoes, is a way to understand them.

    • But then I don’t get the point of the next buyer, who won’t use the boat either. There are just far too many boats and I rarely see one leave the harbor. They really seem like toys that have been used once or twice, before the owner lost interest. I bet most of them just buy a boat because they see that someone else has a boat.


  6. Caricature from my history book for 8th grade, I’m 1995 child. This problem (stupidity) exists over the last 100 years… Boring is my only comment.

  7. Stevan Ulama says:

    Being a translator myself but younger, I cannot believe this story is true, i.e. to afford yachts just from translation business, I still doubt it..

  8. Conrad says:

    Same :) But it was a fun story!

  9. Petru Luncan says:

    Damn it, Andreas! I learnt the wrong languages :)))

    • It’s also impressive for the CV when you can split your mother tongue into four languages and add them to the list of languages spoken fluently.

    • Petru Luncan says:

      Yep! So I speak Romanian ((Romania), Romanian (Moldova), English (US, UK, and another 120 dialects), French (France, Switzerland, Belgium, and all overseas ex-colonies). Wow, I never realized how much I know! :)))

    • Exactly! And if you call it Romanian and Moldavian, for example, nobody in the rest of the world will notice that they are actually the same (although some people in Moldova deny that).

    • Petru Luncan says:

      I should be a billionaire!!! What’s wrong with this people?! :))

  10. timburford says:

    Brilliant! Fact or fiction, I don’t care.

  11. gabe says:

    I think it’s cool that you got them to talk. . . like the conductor controlling the orchestra. Great story.
    Reads like a movie scene.

  12. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

    Hey Andreas, read ‘the city and the city’ by China Mieville if you haven’t already done so. I was reminded of that book reading your post.

    • Thank you for the recommendation!
      And I will take it as a compliment about my writing that the article made you think of published books, whether it was intended that way or not. ;-)

  13. David Spear says:

    Great, insightful piece of absolute journalistic quality. Sometimes a little pluck in chatting someone up pays off big!

    • Thank you very much for the praise!
      I am still far more shy and inhibited than I would like to be, but I am slowly improving.

  14. You’re right …. porto is full of toys for rich people who do not use this toys at all … place for whores…men and women…

  15. That was a long article, luckily it’s well written and the guys were ‘funny’. You can be like those journalists that say things to impress people “They had made millions, but lost their country, their innocence and their belief in humanity.’

    • Oh, thank you, Ma’am! I also thought it was a bit long, like a first draft and I would actually still like to trim it. The problem is that for Yugoslav readers, it has too much background information, but non-Yugoslav readers need that information. Difficult to balance that. – That cheesy sentence came to me when I was in a real flow, typing away like crazy while listening to Shostakovitch. – Now I only need to find a translator into Romanian and maybe I can publish a story in one of the many big-shot magazines that you are editing.

    • I am a writer, I am not editing magazines 😁 I almost knew Shostakovitch had to do with your inspiration.

    • I saw you involved with so many magazines, I thought you were a publishing magnate. Well, let’s hope you will still be a publishing magnet, at least.

  16. Good story, but not true :) The owners of these yachts are not Montenegrin, but always foreigners, and all translation they do there deals with prostitution:)

    • Sounds like I need to return and ask more questions.

    • For sure. I like how you described the language difference and everything about the countries. It is really good. However, yachts are there mainly because the tie is the cheapest in Adriatic, and the other things is prostitution.. A lot of people bought apartments in Porto because in that way they got free tie.

    • First of all, thank you very much for the compliment! After working on an article all weekend, it’s wonderful to hear that people enjoy it.
      Thank you also for the information about the cheapest fees and the connection between apartments and free tie! I did not know that. How much are those fees, for example per year, for different types of boats?
      I have now heard the point about prostitution several times and while that is generally disconcerting, I wonder how grave the issue is. and whether it’s “voluntary” prostitution or also human trafficking or cases involving minors? Are there any reported cases?

    • You welcome, I really enjoyed in reading. I think that monthly tie fee is 1500eur. Regarding prostitution, it is so called elite prostitution, so it is voluntary, and the girls come from different countries. I am not sure about reported cases, that functions as private parties, etc.

    • Lupas gluposti, ja radim u prodaji Porta, prvo vezovi su najskuplji na obali mediterana, drugo niko od vlasnika stanova ne dobija bilo kakvu cjenovnu povlasticu na vezove ukoliko je vlasnik nekretnine u Portu a tvoju opasku na racun prostitucije o kojoj ‘imas saznanja‘ iz zute stampe necu ni da komentarisem, da si jednom bila u Kanu, Monte Karlu ili bilo kojoj evropskoj metropoli znala bi sta je prostitucija, pritom prostitucija je legalna profesija u cijeloj evropi i mislim da bi bilo super da se i kod nas legalizuje, upravo da od toga ljudi poput tebe ne bi pravili senzaciju, pogotovo kad o Portu imaju pojma koliko i ja o Stitarici.

    • Prvo, nemate pravo nikome koga ne poznajete da govorite da lupa gluposti,koliko god da jeste ili nije u pravu. Nekulturno je. Ako imate argumente iznesite ih na lijep nacin, a ne bezobraznim napadima. Drugo, imam stan tacno do Porta jos iz doba kad Porto nije ni postojao, i odlicno znam sta se desava tamo i koliko sta kosta i kako.. A sto se tice prostitucije, to je tzv.elitna prostitucija i postoji tamo itekako. Za mene to niie senzacija, niti imate pravo da mi spocitave da jeste, a jos manje da govorite da ja nikad nisam bila nigdje, jer me ne poznajete. Malo je previse bezobrazno, ali Vas post govori o Vama, ne o meni. Pozdrav

  17. Great article! Enjoyed it a lot!

  18. Wow! Interesting read!

  19. Andreas, what is the name of their company? Have some job for them:)

    • Oh, I even forgot to ask. I think they have different companies because Serbian clients would only hire a Serbian company and so on. Marko, the Montenegrin, told me that he got more business than the others because he was still regarded as the most neutral. But they all work together and seem to share the jobs.

  20. Sarah Vinz says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Andreas — it’s both a fun and informative piece. I’m really interested in the language-politics connection, and it’s great to get another perspective on the complex situation here in the region.

  21. Tony Browne says:

    Yachting has created an industry in Montenegro that employs and provides opportunities for Montenegrins that otherwise did not exist, both directly and indirectly.

    • Dave Bindon says:

      This is a satirical piece about nationalism expressed through language. Yachts (and even Montenegro itself) are purely incidental to the blog, just setting the background for a very humorous fictional account.

    • Thank you very much, Dave, for the compliments and for recognizing exactly what the point of the article was (and that it is entirely fictional). That puts my mind at ease. Now, if anybody else doesn’t recognize it, I can safely assume it’s their fault, not mine.

    • David Spear says:

      But, seriously, did you invent everything?

    • The historical background is true, and there are some translators doing these translations. But I don’t think any of them are millionaires. And the whole meeting in the bar and the conversation is pure fiction, yes.

  22. Love it! Very well written

  23. Laura Protat says:

    Dear Andreas, I’ve read your article and even if the idea and the structure of it it’s interesting, I’ve honestly found it rich of superficial criticisms and generalizations. Also the story could be true but you probably still have to learn a lot about the truth in the Balkans. It is very childish to say that all yacht owners are “Drug dealers, money launderers, lawyers…” even more funny because you’re one of them. Most probably you’ll have good sponsorship from one of them now that you’re writing about Porto Montenegro , who knows 😉 Good luck

  24. FunnyLiving says:

    Guys had fun and made up stories :), but it is nice to see how world in Montenegro seems through eyes of foreigner
    They probably just work on the boats

  25. Very interesting, funny and well written. Looking forward to read some more. ;-)

  26. Dave Bindon says:

    Thanks for making me laugh! Please ignore the few negative comments from people who don’t have a sense of humour.

    • Thank you very much!
      Sometimes, the criticism is interesting, too. I expected quite some backlash from people arguing that Croatian or Serbian had always been an independent language. But all everyone seems to care about is selling yachts.

  27. Would you mind terribly rephrasing your sentence “as if they were the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra of 1966 and I was a small GIRL with a flute, knocking on the door and saying “I want to play music too.” With ” a small BOY” or better “a small CHILD”?
    😈

    Otherwise, I understand that a few people get upset at the way you are picturing Tivat our home town…. I have lived here for 10 years, and it is so much more than just the Marina, and the “darks sides” of it…. Which I believe are not worse than in any other marina in the world and probably less worse… Also as a few pointed out, Porto Montenegro has indeed been an amazing gift to the city, providing thousand of jobs and it is feeding most of us here, so I wouldn’t spit on it, even if, myself, I am not a big fan of the society it represents. Anyway, as I said Tivat is a lot more than the Marina, it is a great little peaceful town, with a relaxed atmosphere, beautiful nature around, nice people etc. etc.

    • I picked the girl and 1966 on purpose because the orchestra was all-male at the time, as illustrated by the video. Also, as I enter the bar, I am playing with the fact that the reader doesn’t know my gender, but the four guys are turning their head towards me in anticipation of a woman. (As you see, every word is carefully picked and every scene carefully orchestrated. Almost like in a Hitchcock movie, if I may say so. ;-) )

    • I find Tivat very friendly, just like everywhere in Montenegro. As a resident of Kotor, I envy you for the sunsets. I don’t think I wrote anything negative (not that I would want to apologize if I did, for I am a writer, not a PR dude), just that I don’t like shiny, glitzy and expensive. That’s more a statement about me than about Tivat.

    • Lastly, regarding the jobs created by Porto Montenegro, I acknowledge that. The jobs created by the four translators are of course a metaphor for this.

  28. Doesn't matter says:

    So, are you a lawyer or a translator? This is what confused me. Not the “different” languages.

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  32. Manjola Nasi says:

    Great article, beautifully written.

  33. Edita Amos says:

    Bravo! Entrepreneurial spirit of our ppl never dies! Creativity on display! 🤗🤙

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  35. I used tho think I was in the wrong business. Now I realize The Fates served me up the wrong languages–and not enough of them at that. In the USA only two people have passed translation tests into three separate target languages. And both cases included Spanish and Portuguese.

    • As a translator for English and German, I sometimes feel superfluous because almost everybody in Germany can read in English. Luckily for me, people are afraid of reading legal documents in a foreign language, so they have them translated – and then don’t read them anyway.

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