Imagine growing up in one country and enjoying your late adolescence and adult life in another – but without ever leaving your home town. Such was the experience of Tvrtko Štuka, who was born in Zagreb, in what was then Yugoslavia, although the city is now of course the capital of Croatia.
Even in the communist period in what was once known as the Eastern Bloc, Yugoslavia was much more liberal and open than, say, East Germany, Romania or Albania. There were fewer travel restrictions, more openness to the world, and higher levels of English linguistic mastery – Croatia was among the first countries to introduce English language lessons from primary school onwards. That might explain Tvrtko’s ease and fluency, barely hesitating for a second as the conversation ranges from international history to his own personal trajectory as a translator.
However, the cohabitation of various language groups within Yugoslavia was never that simple, as the later disintegration and wars proved. The language which used to be known as Serbo-Croat was always a bit of a tug-of-war between two quite distinct dialects – and those distinctions have only grown post-independence. For most open-minded people, understanding the languages now called Serbian or Croatian across the border is not a problem, give or take a few differences in vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation, although there are always nationalists on either side who are keen to focus on the differences, so that you’re never quite at ease speaking Croatian in Belgrade, or Serbian in Zagreb… When it comes to translation, the separate standards that continue evolving call for extra attention in order to avoid mixing them up – something the audiences in both countries are very sensitive to.
None of this mattered much to the young Tvrtko of course. Something of a child prodigy, he was a voracious reader, devouring all kinds of books not necessarily written for kids, including works in English. And so when he began classes in the language in first grade, he was immediately at home, adding German as early as second grade. His proclivity for languages grew more pronounced as the years passed. Even though his doctor father and economist mother had hopes that he might make a career in medicine or finance, his clear preference when choosing his university course was for language and literature – English and Czech in fact.
His family fortunes were hit hard by the premature death of his father when Tvrtko was just 17, and they barely qualified as “middle class”. Upon starting university studies he was obliged to take on a wide variety of jobs to help out. Some interpreting, for sure (the 1990s saw the former Yugoslavia flooded with international NGOs during and following the conflict), but also more eclectic options: beautician, jobs in the railway and hospitality sector, renting out boats, and last (and most certainly not least) as a bodyguard.
But despite the variety and excitement offered by some of these, the need for a more stable profession made itself felt, and Tvrtko spent seven years as an English teacher in foreign language schools and regular schools, teaching everything from Business English to Young Learners. But by now he’d got married and become a father, and the strain of constantly running across town between as many as five schools, against a background of long working hours, made itself felt. There was the threat of burnout, and the sensation of no longer growing professionally.
It was around the year 2000 that the idea of freelance translation began to take shape. Although Tvrtko had no real friends in the profession other than some university colleagues who were in publishing and his own ideas of making it happen were initially rather vague, it turned out to be a good time to make the move. The industry was rather underdeveloped in Croatia at the time, with clients measuring some texts in terms of “double sheets of paper”. In fact, there simply weren’t that many translators around who were embracing new technologies to reach the international market, and so it proved relatively easy for him to build up a client base and a busy work schedule.
It was all going swimmingly when the financial crisis of 2009 suddenly turned what had been an impressive income into an amount that barely enabled Tvrtko and his family to scrape by. Despite going through a tough couple of years, he managed to get his business back on its feet, working in subtitling, technical translations, gaming, handling legal and medical content and providing editing and QA for some of the global leaders in the IT and car industries. Now, after over 20 years of working exclusively as a translator, he can look back on a career with pride, for all its ups and downs.
Tenacity played a big part in that longevity – as well as some family support. His now former wife is also a translator, so they continue to develop the business they built together while their son also helps out, creating a network of specialized translators that has become known as Pike Grupa over the past two decades. His current partner is an editor, with an eagle eye for a missing comma amongst a hundred pages of prose.
As for many translators, the ProZ community on Facebook serves primarily as a distraction and a useful diversion from long hours at the wordface – although there are also occasional nuggets of wisdom around specific elements of, for example, technical translation along the way. As well as making his own – often humorous – contributions to debates.
And then when the working day or week is over, and it’s time to down tools, Tvrtko can turn to his two other twin loves – dogs and mountains – for distraction. Plenty of ups and downs in mountains too of course – but of an altogether more predictable and enjoyable kind…
Face to Face is a feature series highlighting active voices in the ProZ.com Facebook community.
To contact Tvrtko, go to: