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La Dolce Vita – Speaking The Language Of Italian Fashion

La dolce vita – speaking the language of Italian fashion

How do world-famous Italian designers bring their creations to an international audience? Rosemary Merenda has one of the most glamorous jobs in the languages industry – providing creative translation services for the fashion industry. We caught up with her to ask her some of the secrets of her trade.


How did you get started in fashion translation?

I came of age in the early “Do Your Own Thing” 1970s, so by 1980 – when I got started in fashion translation as an American living abroad in Italy – I had already spent a year as a student in Florence, graduated from Tufts University in Boston (with a “Create Your Own Major” in Italian Studies), lived in Palermo, Sicily, working in translation and related fields mostly for the University of Palermo, and taken post-graduate courses in Journalism and Features Writing at the University of Rhode Island (U.S.A.).

Milan Fashion Week

Milan Fashion Week – picture by Eva Rinaldi

I was working as an English teacher in Milan when I happened to spy a notice in the want ads in the Corriere della Sera newspaper for a job working as a translator for a new fashion mag.

This is a key point for two reasons: I read the want ads every single day even though the effort seemed fruitless; and this particular ad appeared that one day only.

So I called the number, went for the job interview, took a written test. At the time I didn’t know the proper fashion language but I did have a writing style. And since the job was to translate an entire fashion mag, complete with lots of features articles, into English, what counted most was having the proper writing skills. So I got the job.


Tell us about your first job with a magazine

The first thing my editor-in-chief told me was: “I want you to write as if the texts were written from the start in English, so that they don’t seem like translations from Italian.”

So practically from one day to the next I was catapulted straight into the heart of the Milanese fashion & fashion publishing industries – at the dawn of the Golden Age of Italian fashion in the early 1980s. I joined the editorial staff immediately in a relatively prestigious position when the magazine was just five months old, basically at the very beginning.

At the time the mag – Donna – was considered as an exquisite creature of the Milan fashion industry, as opposed to the Vogue mags which had originated decades earlier in the U.S. My editor-in-chief and her husband the publisher had actually created the Italian Vogue and Uomo Vogue mags before breaking out on their own, so all down the line the expertise of the people working for Donna was top notch.

From then on, I learned the trade by doing the job.


What are the most enjoyable parts of your job?

Still today, the most enjoyable part is what I call “solving puzzles”: taking obscure-sounding Italian and turning it into smart, fresh English without losing accuracy.


And which parts are particularly challenging?

The answer to this question is the same!


Do you ever get to meet designers?

I began meeting fashion designers in the early 1980s. I was working as a journalist for Donna and for the men’s fashion mag the same publisher created, basically in the same editorial offices. These were the heydays of the worldwide Italian fashion ‘phenomenon’ so all kinds of projects – editorial, advertorial and pure advertising – were in the works all the time on the premises.

I met Italian designers by going to interview them for the mags. People in the fashion business came to our editorial offices to visit and on one such visit prominent U.S. designer Anna Sui, still in the early days of her career, stopped by and I was the one to interview her…

This aspect of my work ended, however, when I left Milan and moved to the ‘country’ –Lake Maggiore, near the Italian Swiss border.


How do you research the right terms and language?

Initially, I’d ask for specific explanations about a colour or a type of garment from the Italian fashion editors on the job… some words are just not available in any dictionary. This was particularly true in the 1980s.

But now there are all sorts of fashion dictionaries on the Net and it’s possible to find just about anything! This is surely a major advance.

fashion industryNevertheless, the right terminology is only part of the story. A writing style, a flair for the language, is still so very important. And sometimes that just takes personal brainstorming. Italian fashion is so much about perfection, about being the best and the most luxurious and the most creative in the world, and if a translator tries to describe all this with so-so or even poor or too-Italian-sounding language it really does seem silly. Perfection means perfection, from every fiber of the garment down to every last word in the press release.


How has the fashion industry changed since you’ve been working in it?

The fashion industry has gone through all kinds of phases, in sync with the times and with the changes in the economy. But here in Italy the high standards of quality and workmanship still predominate. Rather, fashion translation has changed in that now in addition to catalogues and releases etc. there’s all kinds of new work due to ecommerce: since consumers are buying the products online, so cannot see and touch the merchandise directly, the descriptions must be very detailed. It’s an almost bottomless well of work.


What advice would you give to people who want to work in this area?

My advice would be: Do not be afraid to develop a writing style and play a bit with words – of course, without losing accuracy. Most translators are not creative because no one tells them to be… the fashion companies often still ask for a “translation” when what they really need and want is a “semi creative writing translation”

Rosemary Merenda

Rosemary Merenda has more than three decades experience as a translator and journalist in the fashion industry. She specialises in creative translations from Italian into English for the luxury sector, and has also written for popular fashion magazines. Originally from the USA, she now lives near Lake Maggiore, in northern Italy.

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