Learning from experience: Academic editing with authors from Croatia/Serbia

Many of my early editing and translation jobs were for academic researchers from Serbia and Croatia. The work environment there is a bit different to northern Europe, so here’s a roadmap of issues to consider if you are working with academic authors from this part of the world. My experience was that the quality of texts was much more variable, and collaborations often had a different dynamic.

But first…

Here are some general issues that sometimes come up in social science and humanities writing:

  • A text is often someone’s “baby” and they are passionate about the topic. Passion can lead to more conflict if a revised text doesn’t fit someone’s vision of it. This is also true of fiction authors!
  • The social sciences and humanities are built around nuance (do you know the difference between digitization and digitalization?) – if you accidentally erase these nuances in your edits or translations, the authors won’t be happy.
  • Some academic writers can be extremely sensitive about their writing. The stereotyped phrase is “fragile egos” and I think a lot of this comes from the climate of critique and peer review. Those on the margins are more likely to be sensitive, as are those who have a lot riding (e.g. a permanent job contract) on their text. This is all super important to consider when editing or translating.
  • Early career researchers are more likely to be sensitive when working with an editor or translator as they have less experience of having someone else “interfere” with their text, and they are more likely to be in a precarious position.

The CIEP has produced a factsheet on editing in the social sciences and humanities, which covers several of the above points.

Now for the Croatia + Serbia specifics…

Personalised relations

Tenders for jobs (including freelance projects) are often agreed through personal connections in advance. Yes, something like this happens everywhere, but in this part of the world it often depends on having spent time hanging out with the person more closely. Check out Andrea Pisac’s insightful blog post or Čarna Brković’s great book for more details. In contrast, to get a freelance project in northern Europe, it’s usually enough that someone knows that you offer a service and can put a face to name.

This difference often leads to a sense of indebtedness to the person who got you the job (or freelance project). This is linked to an idea – sometimes true, sometimes not – about the scarcity of work available.

The upside of this Croatian/Serbian approach is that your friends and acquaintances often think in broadly similar ways to you. As a result, you can get more interesting (albeit less diverse) work.

The downside is that people with poor writing and research skills also get jobs through their friendship networks.

What to watch out for in the short term: Watch out if you are made to feel very “special” for being chosen and told that only you can do this job. This personal “I choose you” approach opens the door to potential abuse and to unreasonable demands.

What to watch out for in the long term: This system of personal favours can have long-term negative effects on your self-belief in your skills. When? In situations where you know you were chosen because somebody liked you rather than for your editorial or translation skills.

A combative dynamic

In Germany and the UK my experience is that client interactions have a veneer of kindness or politeness. This doesn’t mean there’s no conflict involved. It’s more about the rules of the game when you set up a project.

With academic researchers in Croatia and Serbia, the relationships were often much more combative. Following the northern European rules isn’t helpful here. If you avoid conflict to keep up a veneer of “niceness”, you may be seen as a pushover.

I rarely came across this combativeness in freelance jobs outside academia. It was usually linked to either one of the points mentioned in the section at the start of this article, or – more often – to one of the three points below:

The relative unimportance of research writing

It’s an open secret that research is treated more as a hobby that quite a few researchers (especially in the older generation) do on the side. And there is little external pressure to publish well-written texts in English or Croatian/Serbian. Time spent on research and writing depends more on researchers’ internal motivation. You can climb the academic status hierarchy without publishing anything of value, by pursuing relationships, sitting on various commissions etc.

At the same time, there is some pressure from the government ministries to publish in English. This involves accepting a more “capitalist” system based on performance in international journals. As a result, some of the researchers feel threatened. Here, you can end up in a situation where researchers don’t really want to publish in English. They then send you bad quality texts as they are under pressure to publish, and then argue as they feel threatened.

The emperor’s new clothes

Now, the above often combines with a status hierarchy attached to university employment. This is a bit like the French idea of the intellectual. Those who feel the most insecure (often those not focusing on research and writing) are most likely to hide behind this. For these reasons, the quality of texts I received as an editor varied much more dramatically than with German or UK/US publications. There were also authors who would reintroduce errors into the final text. When told the sentences didn’t work in English, they would try and find “proof” that these errors are permissible, insisting they were the subject expert.

Rebels and outsiders

Finally, there is a reasonable mistrust of outsiders, given the recent history of Western involvement in the region. This is linked to a rebellious attitude taken towards interventions by people from the “West”. If you have a good working relationship with someone (built on mutual trust), or they see you as “one of them” then this isn’t so important. However, you may find yourself on the receiving end of this when collaborating with someone new, where you symbolise for them a Western or outside voice.

Finally, some tips…

What to watch out for:

  • A quick rule of thumb: Ego often comes to the fore when the writing quality is bad.
  • Vanity: A big warning sign for this is if they make general negative comments about being “unhappy” with your work. However, they cannot give any specific feedback on what was done wrong. This often has more to do with their not wanting to work with you.
  • How your work position plays a role: While employed as a researcher, I found it was more difficult to avoid the egos, as you may depend on them in future. As a freelancer though, you can pick and choose much more freely. Notice unreasonable behaviour and be sure to avoid working with that person again!

What I learnt…

  • Try and figure out ASAP whether any unreasonable demands come from lack of knowledge of the editorial/translation process (which is reasonable) or a deliberately awkward dynamic for some of the reasons mentioned above. Always forgive the former and walk away from the latter.
  • Set down firm boundaries and refer to a contract if you want to avoid many problems. And yes, this introduces a level of formality that goes against the “personal connections” approach.
  • Understand your motivation: as an editor I want to work on interesting and high-quality texts, with non-awkward authors. Ultimately, I realised I’d rather receive less money to copyedit a really good book or article than more money to copyedit a badly written and organised text that the author didn’t really want to write.
  • Avoid last-minute jobs: Often, the problem clients were those contacting me at the last minute with requests for big projects. Being booked up for a month or two in advance works as a great filter here.

Finally, I would say: trust your intuition – if I felt uncomfortable about a project, there was usually a reason why.

What parts of the world do your clients come from? How many of these problems are wider?

I now offer copyediting services to science-fiction and fantasy authors too. How does working with this group compare with the above?

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