I’d like to begin by telling you I am writing this from a sleek office in the same block in Lower Manhattan as Vogue HQ, wearing a Sessun wrap dress and leather espadrilles (high heels are so eighties). But as you can probably tell by the title, this blog post is slightly tongue-in-cheek.
I’m actually sporting denim shorts (Boden) and a fair-trade, organic red and black striped T-shirt (ThokkThokk) as I sit typing this by a lake (digital nomad, bien sûr) around 30 km east of anywhere fashion-relevant. Since you asked.
You don’t need to be a fashion obsessive, mulling over whether Martin Margiela or Ann Demeulemeester is the better designer, to do good fashion translations, but it certainly helps if you can understand how people can splash out £2500 on a Chanel handbag or £900 on a Kaviar Gauche wedding dress.
And even though the translation of a 3000-word interview with the CEO of a major denim brand or a press release showcasing the latest shoe trends might sound glam, the truth is that we’re usually at our desks in jeans and sweatshirt, with sweat bands on our wrists and only our latest caffeine boost to keep us going. Someone call the fashion police!
This post is more about describing the nitty gritty of the job of a freelance fashion translator, how we ended up here and what to expect if you feel like going down the same route.
As every British-born person living in mainland Europe knows, Europeans tend to be disconcertingly good at speaking English. To the point that it is actually quite hard for us to even master a foreign language the “au naturel” way, because everyone speaks English better than we do French/Spanish/German.
The positive side effect for us translators, however, is that, in a healthy economic climate, it makes sense for European companies and brands to want to access a larger market by supplying articulately-written English language content.
So during the economically robust late-nineties in Germany, most internationally-minded magazines chose to publish in both languages. Others switched to English only, but still wrote the content in German, simply because the German editors and people in the know were the ones creating the content.
I have always had a love of languages as well as art and design, and sidestepped into my specialty by studying textile design in Germany (my source language) and learning all about weaving techniques, different fabrics and manufacturing technology. This knowledge has stood me in good stead when having to tell the difference between a standard twill or herringbone or when spelling fashion terminology like jacquard and plissé.
My partner-in-crime Paula Hedley studied German with business and marketing at Northumbria University, but came to fashion through a genuine love of new trends and a stint working at a PR agency for fashion and advertising photography in Cologne. She’s in the know about the latest labels taking the fashion world by storm and can help me out with fashion merchandising abbreviations like NOS and QR or if I need an idea for a snappy hashtag or title. And of course it’s also great having an enthusiastic, like-minded plus one for Fashion Week parties. Mixing business with pleasure at its best!
Early on in our translation careers we were asked if we could collaborate on a new specialist fashion magazine (J’N’C Magazine) that was launched back in the early 2000s. The rest, as they say, is history: the magazine was a success, and on the back of that we worked for tradeshows like Bread & Butter and Bright and other magazine editors who liked our style of writing.
But our day to day is usually dotted with small jobs for PR agencies who come to us for their daily needs. That covers everything from short but urgent emails to clients (“Where is the collection we wanted shipped last week?”) to press releases for the foreign press that have to be word perfect and strike a chord with the target group. We also often translate press clippings for international brands so they know what the German press is writing about them.
So obviously it’s important to keep bang up to date with trends and designers.
The best way to make sure you know what’s going on is to visit some of the major tradeshows (which, of course, applies to you whatever your speciality subject is). Berlin, where I’m based, has two Fashion Weeks a year, where all of the major shows play host to an incredibly wide range of labels and brands. Each trade fair has its own particular emphasis, and over the years I have found my favourites. I always enjoy the ethical trade fair “Green Showroom” because it’s small and you get to talk to the designers in an intimate setting. The first few years it was hosted at the luxurious Hotel Adlon Kempinski and each designer had their own suite where they welcomed the buyers, sitting on the Egyptian-cotton-clad beds, which was slightly odd, but in a good way.
The Ethical Fashion Show at the city’s Postbahnhof venue is also laid-back and enjoyable. And the now infamous Bread & Butter (recently bought by Zalando), which was enormous in its scope, was held in the dramatic Tempelhof Airport. They really knew how to throw a great opening party. I vividly remember Paula and I enjoying a balmy summer evening of hard toil, involving bumper cars, DJ sets and caipirinhas on the hot tarmac of the former airport as we mingled, I mean networked, with the fashion crowd. So yes, it does get glamorous occasionally…
Working for PR agencies, it’s important to keep abreast of their clients’ latest work, because that’s what you’ll be translating. They will all have Facebook pages and Twitter and Instagram accounts so that’s the best way to follow and like what’s going on, although it can be very distracting! After all, you’re not getting paid for reading stuff on Facebook, but it helps if you know when your clients are planning a major event, launching a new product or taking part in the Press Days or Fashion Week.
If we ever feel like visiting fashion shows, then our clients, mostly PR agencies, are happy to provide us with a seat in the third row (!) But don’t expect champagne treatment. You’re not Chloë Sevigny, you’re just there to inform yourself and keep up to date, not to hobnob with the models and designers. Part of our job description is to be the invisible link in the chain that ensures the language of fabric and colour used by designers can be translated into words that convey the vision behind their creations.
If we’re lucky, we can take our raw material – well-written copy – and transform it into something that will be worthy of the flowing garments and intricate flounces of Germany’s best designers.
And if we’re luckier still, we’ll be holding the glossy fruits of our labours in our hands two weeks later, and not even find a typo!*
*Actually, I try not to look too closely, because there is ALWAYS something I feel we could have improved on, but with tight deadlines and a busy schedule, at some point you need to let go.
Next week: I give you a run down of the scheduling and the working process of translating for magazines and working with editors and graphic designers.