"Slave earrings" translation blunder causes great offence

Vogue Italia has been widely criticised for the feature it ran on its blog this Monday, a piece entitled “Slave Earrings” that has since been removed.

The post read: “Jewellery has always flirted with circular shapes, especially for use in making earrings. The most classic models are the slave and creole styles in gold hoops.”

It continued: “If the name brings to the mind the decorative traditions of the women of colour who were brought to the southern United States during the slave trade, the latest interpretation is pure freedom. Colored stones, symbolic pendants and multiple spheres. And the evolution goes on.”

In the original Italian, the earrings are described as “schiave o creole.” “schiave” does in fact translate as “slave” in English. This style of earring used to be referred to as “Creole” in Britain, so why not use that description in Italian too, since it’s actually an Italian word?

Editor-in-chief, Franca Sozzani, was quick to respond to the furore that ensued online with a statement (obtained by The Guardian), saying “We apologise for the inconvenience. It is a matter of really bad translation from Italian into English.”

But is this the full story? Surely a second opinion would have been prudent, especially as the translation provided had thrown up such a controversial and offensive word. Surely magazines and publishing groups have focus groups or advisors they can run things past before publication, to avoid this kind of fallout?

We actually encountered a scenario along the same lines ourselves, while adapting and localising a job advert for our German office.

The job title of Business Development Manager we left in English, as this is normal in a modern German business environment. The acronym “BDM”, we were advised however, it would be wise to avoid, since it used to stand for “Bund Deutscher Mädel” (League of German Girls) – otherwise known as the girls’ branch of the Hitler Youth.

You see how easy it is to make this kind of blunder, even for a company like ours that deals with translation every day? This is something that only a German native speaker or an expert in 20th century German history would have been aware of. It’s possible that the term no longer carries the same level of offence as a few decades ago, but it’s definitely not worth the risk, especially as we want to encourage people to work for us, not put them off with a simple misguided word or phrase.

Acronyms are certainly ambiguous in English – would you think that PLC stands for Public Limited Company, Product Life Cycle, or Press Liability Commission? Ok, so I just made the last one up, but you see my point. At Web-Translations, we often query acronyms with clients, as it’s an important detail to get right. One person’s Return on Investment is another’s Republic of Ireland…and so on.

Sadly the Vogue Italia slave episode will now join the ranks of examples where a company who did have the means to buy a quality translation chose not to do so, and in this case did not have an adequate checking process in place to prevent publication of material that was bound to cause offence.

Learn from Vogue’s mistake: Get your translations thoroughly checked by a professional whom you trust, and if in doubt, ask more questions. Any experienced translator will be able to explain the exact meaning and nuance of a phrase so your text gets you noticed for all the right reasons.