The Language of Luxury: Content, Translation, & Culture In Between


Sara White Wilson | November 23, 2012

Sara White Wilson, independent writer in luxury brand communications, examines the nuances of translation when it comes to luxury marketing and media

Vogue Paris launched online in 2012 in English

As a luxury consumer, beauty products are my péché mignon (a French phrase meaning ‘weakness’, though I greatly prefer the literal translation: ‘cute sin’). As a luxury professional, language is my métier (also a French word, meaning ‘trade’, though the term carries greater weight than ‘occupation’).

Little surprise then that each time I spend a healthy degree of cash on some beauty potion, I thoroughly – studiously – read the product insert, and often in each language to, say, brush up on my German. It is charming when a French beauty product, for example, makes a harmless fault in their English translation and one that only a French translator would make.

It indicates that the copy and its translation were produced by locals and in the native language of the region where the product was conceived. It suggests the product is artisanal, the company perhaps family-owned, and that the brand is, in short, authentic.

This is what I like to imagine, in any case, but the reality is that when witnessed in a different set of parameters, sloppy copy can make a brand look not only unprofessional but also provincial.

“ Sloppy copy can make a brand look not only unprofessional but also provincial ”

Translation is in the limelight of late. And, center stage are the efforts of Western luxury brands to position themselves in the native-language consciousness of the Chinese luxury consumer though online magazines, blogging, micro-blogging, and sales platforms.

The year 2012 witnesses The New York Times launch in Mandarin in June – only to be censored in October due to an article examining the wealth of Chinese leaders. Two thirds of the content is translated from the paper, while one third is locally sourced and written articles.

LVMH’s editorial-only platform NOWNESS launched in Mandarin in April, and features content with its core cultural themes of fashion, art, film and gastronomy tailored to the Chinese reader.

Following LVMH’s failed e-commerce venture,, NOWNESS launched in English in 2010 with no air of online sales, though reader attention is not without bottom-line value. "The new site capitalizes on China’s significant position as a growing luxury market,” the website said in a statement. Content is future capital.

“ Western luxury brands are looking to position themselves in the native-language consciousness of the Chinese luxury consumer ”

Also in April of this year, launched a version of the French online magazine in English, directly translated from the original French content. The target is not local, in this case, but global. Korean readers, for example, may know only one Western language – English – and, it is therefore their portal to the Western world.

“We wanted to take the voice of global,” explains Sara Herz, Director of Digital Activities at Condé Nast, “which means maintaining the same editorial line…there are certain topics that we know will have more resonance with an international audience, so we aim to present a hand-picked selection that readers around the world will love.”

International users represent 15 percent of the total audience, according to Herz. This is interesting, but what is perhaps more interesting is that English content is better poised for re-posting.

“We’re also delighted to be able to say that our English content will soon be present on the Washington Post Social Reader on Facebook, and on the Huffington Post,” concludes Herz, which underscores that sharing – not just content creation, but also content re-creation – is also capital in the running.

“ Language can seduce the imagination and evoke desire for, and memories of, exceptional experiences ”

Language – like money – doesn’t smell. It is impossible to taste, or to touch. But language can seduce the imagination and evoke desire for, and memories of, exceptional experiences. Furthermore, the mysteries of translation can tease subtleties of meaning from that grey area between cultural difference. Variations of word meaning can be a hazy place to dream.

For a journalist and a reputation, however, imprecise translation can be a nightmare, and a scapegoat. Karl Lagerfeld shocked France’s political elite by calling France’s new president an ‘idiot’ while in conversation with a Spanish journalist of Marie Claire España. He claims he never said such a thing and that his meaning was lost in translation, insisting, “I don’t have to apologize because I didn’t say it.”

In a largely diplomatic gesture towards the Middle East, France’s Comité Colbert, which unites 75 of the country’s leading luxury brands and 12 of its cultural institutions, collaborated with Editions Dar an-Nahar in Beirut to publish in late 2011 “Au cœur du luxe, les mots” (“At the Heart of Luxury, Words”, if I am permitted to translate).

“ For a journalist and a reputation, however, imprecise translation can be a nightmare, and a scapegoat ”

It includes Arabic text by Syrian poet Adonis, French text by linguist Alain Rey, a preface by French philosopher Regis Debray as well as work by calligrapher Ghani Alani and photographer Quentin Bertoux. Altogether, they explore cultural meaning within the lingual domain of luxury, between French and Arabic as well as photographic and calligraphic illustration.

Twenty-two words – including Elegance, Time, Paradoxes and Pleasure – receive a chapter each, in which nuances are highlighted by the reflections of philosophy, poetry and linguistics.

German philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote in 1820: “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world”. Humboldt developed the theory that the character and structure of a language express the inner life and knowledge of its speakers, which is their Weltansicht, or linguistic worldview.

“ Worldview is particularly expressed through writing style, the most difficult element to translate ”

The use of language for successful promotion of luxury products is exactly this – a well-articulated worldview that seduces those looking to expand, define or refine their own. Worldview is particularly expressed through writing style, which is one of the most difficult – if not impossible – elements of a text to translate.

Luxury can be resumed in certain words such as Elegance and Pleasure. But what these words mean in a specific cultural context can be variable according to country, city, neighborhood, and home. Content – like value – is created around communities, which, because of the worldwide web, are now more than ever both local and global at once.

To further investigate branding and communications on Luxury Society, we invite your to explore the related materials as follows:

- What Instagram Means for Luxury Brands
- Music: The Next Luxury Frontier?
- 2012’s Best Global Luxury Brands