Dialogue: An Ordinary Italian Talks to “Made in Italy”

I’ve been saying it for years. “Made in Italy” is a scam, a lie, and a fraud.

For something like a decade, the phrase has been popping up with increasing desperation in the Italian texts I am asked to translate, but always as a noun. In other words, it’s not “made in Italy style” or “made in Italy craftsmanship.” It’s “The whole world loves the Made in Italy” or “the Made in Italy is why consumers in every nation are clamoring for Italian products.” (Well, actually, they aren’t. Unless you count corrupt Russian politicians or Venezuelan oil dons, for whom anything with a little Swarovski on it is a joy forever.)

I object, of course, to the ungrammatical use of an adjective as a noun. But the real reason for my categorical refusal to shift that phrase over verbatim into an English translation is a question of principle.

For the record, what “the Made in Italy” usually becomes is something along the lines of “Italian design excellence” or “the high-quality leather goods for which Italy is famous.” Or words to that effect.

Because, it’s worth saying again, “Made in Italy” is a scam, a lie, and a fraud.

Let’s take furniture, for example. “Made in Italy” is meant to conjure up an image of a tiny workshop, redolent of varnish and sawdust, located on a difficult-to-find Florence backstreet where a wizened artisan (and artigianale is largely a scam, too, but we’ll save that for another post) works painstakingly with hand tools to create one-of-a-kind cabinets and chairs. As he works, he’ll tell you how he learned his craft from his grandfather, who learned it from his. And that’s why that little sideboard is going to cost you ten thousand euros.

Here’s the reality: There are probably more Lowland Gorillas left in Rwanda than there are charming little “artisinal” (ugh) workshops in Italy. If they do exist, the guys working there are making a set of 50-foot dining tables for the Sultan of Brunei and are not interested in how charmed you are by some silly-ass spice rack. No, you may not take a picture.

Instead, enormous makeshift factories have grown up in the most depressing semi-rural areas of the country where non-Italians (many of them illegal or paid, in full or in part, under the table in order to bypass labor laws and avoid taxes) unpack container-loads of non-Italian raw and semi-processed materials from China and other parts of the so-called developing world and assemble them. Often, these places are little more than sweatshops. Competition in the industry is fierce and, not infrequently, fiercely unfair.

Italian law allows a product to be called “Made in Italy” even if all the parts and materials come from Luzon and if only the most minimal part of its assembly takes place on Italian soil. No Italian need be involved and, in fact, mostly they aren’t — except possibly as the factory owners who reap the profits. Small Italian family businesses have been forced into bankruptcy — or else they’ve had to comply with the new “market logic,” fire their Italian workers, stop using local materials, and pay employees “in nero” (that is, illegally).

And yet the product description will speak of “centuries of tradition” and “techniques passed down from generation to generation.” And the price will still be exorbitant. And “Made in Italy” will be stamped all over it.

The same goes for clothing and most every other tangible product sold in Italy. Food and wine have their own, stricter regulations, but that doesn’t actually stop consumer scams in those areas as well.

In fact, even Guy Trebay, the New York Times’ fashion and culture vulture, seems to have had enough. In a recent article on Milan’s indispensable (not to say relentless) Fashion Week, Trebay editorialized, “what does ‘Made in Italy’ mean, anyway, when so many Italian goods are manufactured in Eastern Europe and sent back across the border to have a label sewn on?”

What indeed.

Italian authorities largely ignore all this because they are fully aware that many Italian industries would simply grind to a halt if they a) were fully legal and b) exclusively used Italian workers and Italian materials. They couldn’t compete, and that would be the end of it.

And that’s globalization in a nutshell, at least the “made in Italy” version. Beppe Grillo’s January 9, 2013 blog took up the issue in his “Platonic Dialog”: “Dialogo tra un Italiano Qualunque e il Made in Italy

Grillo’s original article was made in Italy; the translation was not.


Platonic Conversation by Felice Casorati (1925)

Platonic Conversation by Felice Casorati (1925)

Ordinary Italian: “Excuse me, I see you’ve got the Italian flag draped across your chest, but who are you? A colonialist? A patriot? Are you the mayor? Or maybe you’re some distant cousin of Totò Cutugno’s?”

Made in Italy: “Don’t you recognize me? You must be blind as a genuine certified-Italian imported bat. I’m Made in Italy!”

Ordinary Italian: “You look kind of Asian to me. Are you really an Italian citizen?”

Made in Italy: “I’ve been Italian for generations. I’m a native product. See? It says so right here on the package. There’s a little red, white, and green Italian flag. There’s even the ‘Made in Italy’ trademark, which has made Italy famous the world over.”

Ordinary Italian: “No, you’re fresh off a cargo ship! You’re an illegal product!”

Made in Italy: “I was conceived in Italy by an Italian designer and raised in Shanghai with pure-blood Italian money. And now that I’m all grown up, I’ve come back home. I’m a regular Prodigal Son, and this is how you treat me….”

Ordinary Italian: “Wait a minute. I recognize you now. You’re that product I used to see on TV commercials when I was a kid, the ones that showed Italian factories and smiling Italian workers.”

Made in Italy: (Proudly.) “Yes, that’s me!” And it’s the strength of that tradition that’ll make you buy me.”

Ordinary Italian: “But what about the workers? What about the factories? Where are they now? Did you move them all to China?”

Made in Italy: “No, unfortunately those workers had to be fired. The factory did reopen, but in Shanghai. You know how things are these days – labor costs, all those environmental regulations, taxes, the bureaucracy, the unions…. Over there, a product can have another life entirely.”

Ordinary Italian: “You know, you’ve nearly convinced me to buy you. You’ve got to be more economical – at least half off the regular price.”

Made in Italy: “No, prices haven’t changed. Who do you think you’re dealing with here? I’m a quality product!”

Ordinary Italian: “Listen, don’t take this the wrong way, but what was the point of moving kit and caboodle overseas if you weren’t going to lower your prices?”

Made in Italy: “The price is the same but profits are on the increase. That’s the law of Italian capital: It goes wherever there are fewer protections for workers and labor is cheaper. But look, I like you. If you take me home right now, I’ll give you a 5% discount.”

Ordinary Italian: “Forget about it! You take off that “Made in Italy” sign right now, you interloper you! You’re just the bastard child of renegade capitalists and all the others who got us into this mess. The only thing you manufacture is unemployment! The next time I see you around these parts, I’m going to slap a 50% import duty on you, that’s what I’m going to do!”


Posted on 9 July 2013, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Translation ... sometimes it is a beautiful thing...., We've Gone Mad! Mad I Tell You! and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. You mean the sweater I’m handknitting for a friend’s college-new-graduate daughter isn’t using real Italian yarn, despite the label? Here I thought the sheep were grazing romantically along either the Po or in the high pastures of the Apennines… And that sweater – which is intended for a Christmas present – has well over $100 worth of yarn in it….

    jan on 1/10/2013 – LOVED the column, but tell me about the yarn.

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