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  • Writer's pictureSarah Hudson

Translating vintage tailoring techniques

I have just had one of my most rewarding months as a professional translator. This is because I have worked on a large project that has involved a high degree of collaborative effort. It involved assisting my mentor and translator colleague Cherry Shelton with the translation of a book on vintage tailoring techniques.

Cherry is an experienced and talented translator who has helped me to gain a greater understanding of the translation industry and to refine my skills. She is particularly skilful at dealing with terminology and achieving very clean and concise translations. I jumped at the chance to work with her on this project because not only am I interested in fashion, I knew that I would learn a great deal in the process. I wasn’t disappointed.

The book has been written by expert gentleman’s tailor Sebastian Hoofs and Niklas Hoppe, aka the ‘Vintagebursche’, who writes a popular blog on early 20th century men’s tailoring, drawing his inspiration on recent television hits such as Peaky Blinders, Downton Abbey and Babylon Berlin. As Cherry is a more technically-minded translator and an experienced sewer, it was agreed that she would translate the bulk of the book mainly consisting of sewing patterns, which I would then proofread. Cherry would then proofread my translation of the preface and prelude, which explained the writers’ reasons for writing the book and outlined the historical context and fashion trends of the era.

Cherry’s feedback on my translation of the preface and prelude was very constructive and ensured we could provide an accurate rendering of the original that would provide an engaging introduction to the book. I was initially nervous about proofreading Cherry’s translations because whilst I have some sewing experience, it did not match Cherry’s. As I worked through the very carefully and well-translated sewing instructions, I realised that I did indeed have something to add.

Firstly, I was able to act as a sounding board for Cherry as she tried to pinpoint (pun intended) the right specialist terms of which there were many in this translation. We spent a while discussing why the authors insisted on using the word dressing gown (Morgenmantel) for a garment that we felt looked more like a smoking jacket because it was worn over a suit, whereas a dressing gown is usually worn over nightwear. Following further discussion with the client and additional research, we decided upon ‘dressing robe’ as the garment was less structured than a smoking jacket and it was necessary to align the translation with the clients’ requirements.

Another important task was to ensure that all the specialist terms were used consistently. Our terminology list comprised over 300 terms, including different types of seams, collars and around 15 different stitching methods. For example, anhexen means to sew with a herringbone stitch, which conjures a different image than its English counterpart. Special care needs to be taken with prefixes on German verbs, for example, heften and anheften both mean to baste (or tack), whereas umheften means to turn over the fabric and then baste.

It was fun to learn an array of interesting terms relating to gentlemen’s clothing of the period, including Ballonmütze (baker’s boy cap), Beinkleid (breeches), Gamasche (spats) and Messerkragen (spearpoint collar). I learned that whilst English speakers refer to the ‘eye’ of the needle, German speakers thread cotton through the ‘ear’ of the needle. I was also intrigued to learn the origin of the name of the basketball team, the New York Knicks, or Knickerbockers. Knickerbocker was the name given to the early Dutch settlers in New York, who would have worn this style of trousers.

It took me over a week to proofread the 20,000 or so words that made up the complex sewing instructions. Cherry felt that it was helpful to have a fresh pair of eyes to weed out any redundant elements, check punctuation and verify her extensive research. This involved checking the instructions against similar sewing patterns as additional images often proved to be helpful. Cherry sent quite a lot of queries to the client, who was always happy to provide extra information. It was wonderful to share the feeling of satisfaction once the translation was completed and formatted ready for publication. It also felt good to know that we have played a part in ensuring specialist tailoring skills remain alive.


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