Vesna Žagar is a self-proclaimed grouch, history buff, sci-fi nerd and trekkie. She started as a TV reporter, continued as a magazine editor, wrote over 50 short stories for children, and finally decided she prefers translating and a quiet life in her bedroom office corner. She’s happily married to her books.
Years of experience: almost 30
Language combinations: English-Slovenian, Croatian/Serbian-Slovenian
Services performed: subtitling, dubbing
We are very happy to kick off our interview series on ”Being a Freelance Linguist in Central and Eastern Europe” with our friend from Slovenia, Vesna!
TC: Hi, Vesna, and thank you for accepting to answer our questions. It’s a real honour for us to initiate this series with you! Let’s dive right in, shall we?
How and why did you become a freelance translator?
VŽ: I had a big mouth. I mean, I’ve always wanted to be a translator but when choosing a career path I didn’t see how I could become one (there was no specialised translation study at the time) so I went into journalism. Which turned out to be the right path. While I was working on our national TV somebody gave me a videotape of Lawrence of Arabia with a disastrous translation. I happened to know the distributer, I called him and said: “Come on, seriously? Even I could do better.” He replied: “Oh, really? Care to prove it?” And the rest is history.
”I guess all the pluses and minuses are basically the same as everywhere. The biggest advantage is probably the freedom to work the hours you choose yourself.”
TC: What is the main advantage of being a freelancer in your country (as opposed to, maybe, other countries)?
VŽ: I guess all the pluses and minuses are basically the same as everywhere. The biggest advantage is probably the freedom to work the hours you choose yourself. I find it very practical that I can deal with personal matters like doctors’ appointments or shopping or going to the hairdresser during the least crowded time of the day. As for the rest, we can’t really brag to be paid very well, but we can live with what we earn. The government largely ignores us until taxes are due, and our work is more or less unappreciated.
TC: What are your main fields of specialization and how did you choose them? Or maybe did they choose you?
VŽ: As I already mentioned, I somewhat stumbled into subtitling. And I loved it. I especially loved the variety: a documentary today, a horror movie tomorrow, a sci-fi series two days a week… My horizons were broadening with lightning speed. And they still are. Every day brings something new, even when I work on a topic I know well. And now I simply can’t imagine myself working on a project that would take a week or a month or even longer. And I deeply admire the persistence and dedication of literary, technical and other translators who work on long projects. Compared to my amazing colleagues who are capable of working on big projects, and interpreters who have to stay focused for a long time, I have the attention span of a goldfish.
TC: Can you tell us a few words about your working environment? Do you work at a desk or in a hammock?
VŽ: Since I need complete silence to work I have my “office” in a corner of my bedroom. Any other part of the house is too noisy. A co-working space is out of the question. I can’t work in any other position, I need to sit at my desk. My work is basically deep thinking interspersed with bouts of furious typing. If I was standing or if I had to balance myself on a ball, I couldn’t think. You wouldn’t believe how much energy you need to adapt your translation to fit a subtitle. And if I was in a bed or a hammock I would probably fall asleep. So a huge desk (I need space for reference books on at least 20 different subjects at a time), a comfortable office chair and a very good headset are a must for me.
”My work is basically deep thinking interspersed with bouts of furious typing. If I was standing or if I had to balance myself on a ball, I couldn't think”
TC: And while we’re at it, how many hours a day do you spend in front of your computer?
VŽ: Probably about 8 or 9 unless there’s an emergency. But I learned to schedule my work quite efficiently so such emergencies are extremely rare. I’m not a night owl, I can’t work late, so I try to be done with the day’s plan by 7 p.m., preferably by 5 p.m.
TC: What about staying fit? How do you manage to squeeze in exercise in your busy life?
VŽ: Exercise was never something I enjoyed, I was, am and always will be lazy. I make do with regular evening dance classes and occasional walks.
TC: As for your eating habits, do you usually cook or order/dine out? 🙂
VŽ: I’m a spoiled brat. I live in a 2-apartment house with my retired parents in the other apartment so my mom is the designated cook.
TC: All right, let’s get back to the business side of things. Do you mostly work with agency clients or direct clients?
VŽ: The biggest chunk of my income comes from the agencies. There are not many jobs for direct clients in subtitling. Only occasionally, when our directors want to send their movies to international festivals. Everything else goes through either international or local agencies.
TC: Do you feel your local language services market is the same or different from markets in, say, Western Europe or the Americas?
VŽ: There are probably many similarities. I’m trying to think of some differences, but nothing comes to mind. Chats with my colleagues from other countries revealed we’re facing similar hurdles, dealing with similar attitudes…
Perhaps the one thing that’s slightly different here is our fierce loyalty to our language. I mean, we disparage it, we say it’s boring and stupid, we use all kinds of imported words in spoken language… But when someone from the outside shows the tiniest bit of disrespect, we’re all up in arms.
TC: When you go to a conference and attend a presentation or workshop on marketing by a professional or trainer who is not familiar with the situation in your country, how useful is their advice? Do the principles or strategies presented apply to you?
VŽ: Subtitling is a narrow field with very few clients so marketing advice that’s probably golden for other translators simply don’t apply to subtitlers.
TC: How is the translation/interpretation profession regarded in your country? Are you happy with how local clients perceive language professionals? Do you feel that they are aware of the expertise and efforts required by this profession?
VŽ: I suppose it won’t surprise anyone if I say we are NOT appreciated as we should be. And part of the reason are bad subtitling translations, done by people who work for peanuts. So general public only notices those bad translations and just throws us all in the same basked: all subtitles are lousy. And on top of that everybody thinks they understand enough English they don’t need subtitles anyway. Literary translators are in a better position. They are regarded as cultured intellectuals. That said, there has been a slight shift in thinking. We’re still not where we should be but at least here and there you can find someone who understands why we do what we do.
TC: Do you mostly work with local or international clients?
VŽ: My end clients are all international, mainly American. Some of them are working through local agencies.
TC: Is there a strong community of linguists in your country? Do you have an active translators’ or interpreters’ association?
VŽ: Surprisingly, yes. Our literary and technical translators already had their associations before but a few years ago we also established a subtitlers’ association. People leading it work tirelessly and they’ve achieved quite a lot. Each year (2020 is an exception due to coronavirus) we give awards for the best subtitling and dubbing translations, those awards have the status of national awards, we prepared the White book for subtitling, we’re finalizing national subtitling guidelines…
TC: We’re approaching the end of this interview and we would like to find out a couple of things about Slovenia. What is your favourite city or region in Slovenia? What should a tourist who has never been to Slovenia visit first?
VŽ: Slovenia is a small country but very diverse. Bled and Postojna caves are the two biggest attractions. But if I was driving a guest around the country, I’d show them Bela krajina, Logarska dolina, Soča river (wonderful rafting experience)…
TC: And finally, if you had to give a single piece of advice to young language professionals, what would that be?
VŽ: You’re never as smart as you think you are. When you start believing you’re an awesome translator, you inevitably start becoming a bad one. You have to work really hard to earn a good reputation, but you can lose it with one mistake.