Beauty Across Borders
Cosmetics localization, gender fairness,
by Tiziana Bottone
Fragrances, skincare brands, organic and natural beauty products, luxury makeup, beauty tech tools: All these and more encompass the cosmetics industry, driving ever-increasing revenues.
There’s little wonder why the beauty industry is so profitable — it’s been around for a while. Makeup was used first 6,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, and it is mentioned in the Bible, too. At different eras, people used makeup for a variety of purposes: a healthy look, as a sign of wealth, to show their rebellion. Cosmetics are part of our culture, and wearing makeup can be a sign of distinctiveness — everyone remembers Amy Winehouse’s winged eyeliner. The beauty world evolved into the dominant industry of the modern day, worth about $511 billion.
Nowadays, 96% of beauty brands have an online presence. In an era where consumers want to be aware of what they are buying and what they put on their skin, the primary goal of every brand is to convert their followers into buyers. Customers want to know the ingredients and the benefits of each product, and the values behind each beauty company. TikTok is the best social network for makeup artists — and beauty brands know it. Cosmetic brands are recruiting beauty influencers and models to promote their products, drawing lines in a battle for social media virality. That is because consumers rely on social media content when looking for advice on beauty products. Of particular interest are before/after pictures. Consumers want to see if a foundation or a lipstick is really smudge-proof and mask-friendly, and they trust influencers — who later become beauty product producers themselves, along with celebrities.
As a beauty translator, it is extremely important to understand your target audience and to stay up to date on the latest cosmetic trends. You should be extremely familiar with the cosmetic jargon and respect the brand voice you are working for. Similar to fashion translation, you must consider if the company wants to reach a mass audience or a more exclusive and elite consumer. Is your client a small family business who wants to promote its unique, eco-friendly vegan lotion, or is it a luxury brand who wants to sell its exclusive niche perfume? Translating for the cosmetic industry means localizing and transcreating the source text into glamorous, memorable content.
Think about English terms like healthy-looking, glow-boosting, light-reflecting in another language. Chances are you won’t find exact translations, so it is time to decide your strategy. You can explain the meaning of those terms, make up new words, or leave them in English — both English and French are widely embraced in other languages when talking about cosmetics for marketing purposes.
As a translator, you must think about convincing consumers to buy a certain product. That’s why a marketing background comes in handy. Copywriting skills are also important when translating the perfect marketing campaign advertisement or slogan. Remember: The success of the marketing campaign is in your hands. Everyone recognizes the legendary L’Oreal tagline, “Because I’m worth it,” which was coined by Ilon Specht, a young copywriter in 1971. That was the first advertising message to highlight self-confidence, and it is more relevant now than ever. Female empowerment is a hot topic these days. In fact, brands share the idea that women can be beautiful whether or not they wear makeup — that imperfections do not need to be covered, but instead enhanced. The “because I’m worth it” slogan has been translated into 40 languages and is an excellent example of localization in the beauty industry.
Cosmetics consumers have a different relationship with the products depending on their country and culture. In Asia, for instance, consumers prefer a more natural look, choosing products that do not only cover spots but treat them. In Muslim countries, women are using makeup to show their empowerment.
Language has to reflect the historical moment, and we now live in an era where uniqueness, transparency, and body positivity are celebrated.
What kind of content will you translate as a beauty translator?
The beauty industry has no shortage of text that needs translation. Since the world of beauty is supported by science and high-tech branches, you will translate words that cover everything from plants and flowers to molecules and bioactive compounds, from green cosmetics to technological devices. Social media platforms are an essential piece of the puzzle — brands regularly post marketing content to engage their customers. Likewise, retail shops continuously update their websites and blogs for SEO purposes. The pandemic situation led to the spread of new tools, such as beauty mirrors to virtually try lipsticks or foundation and chat bots who advise you on the best gift. So, in summary, you will be working on:
- Product descriptions
- Social media content
- Beauty apps
Inclusive language and the challenge translators are facing
It is not something completely new to the world of beauty — let’s remember CK One perfume for both men and women in the ’90s — but the rise of gender-neutral beauty brands is unstoppable. Cosmetics are not “for her” or “for him,” they are “for everyone.” Packages are not just pink anymore; they have a neutral aesthetic. The need for a gender-neutral language is not recent, either: The European Union began adopting gender-neutral language guidelines in 2008 and monitors the changes of the society with extreme attention.
But let’s take a step back to understand what gender-neutral language means.
According to the European Union:
“Gender-neutral language is a generic term covering the use of non-sexist language, inclusive language or gender-fair language… Using gender-fair and inclusive language also helps reduce gender stereotyping, promotes social change and contributes to achieving gender equality.”
There are different strategies that can be implemented to achieve a gender-neutral language. Speaking inclusively can be quite easy when you do it in natural gender languages such as English, Danish, and Swedish. In such languages, neutralization of the gender is the most-used option. In English, for example, the use of the singular they and the derivative forms — them, their, theirs, and themselves — as genderless pronouns is commonly employed, and most English nouns have no grammatical gender (makeup artist, for instance, can be used both for men and women). Swedish, which has the pronoun hon, “she,” and han, “he,” coined a gender-neutral personal pronoun hen, which has been used since 2012. However, adopting a gender-neutral language strategy can be challenging for languages made up of two genders — masculine and feminine — like Romance languages. Italian, for example, often uses the masculine gender to refer to mixed-gender groups.
Sociolinguist Vera Gheno proposed the use of the schwa to avoid any gender. This proposal generated an extensive debate between those who want language to change and those who see no need for it. In social media contexts, it’s common to find an asterisk (*) or the ‘at’ sign (@) to avoid using any gender termination. By the way, it is still an open debate, both between linguistics and the Italian society, whether Italian language can be inclusive. Nevertheless, there are a series of stratagems you can use to avoid using the masculine gender: periphrasis, exclusion of certain adjectives or pronouns, and omission of the gender when it is not relevant.
As such, if you want to translate for the beauty industry, you have to consider that this industry is changing. You should be translating for inclusive companies, queer-owned beauty brands, or black-owned beauty brands. You should pay extreme attention to details for using a sensitive, not gender-biased, nor discriminatory or sexist language.
On March 2021, Unilever announced they will remove the word “normal” from its beauty products to promote inclusivity, since there are no “abnormal” skins. On YouTube, you can find a tons of male influencers doing makeup tutorials. Thus, language must reflect the main message of those brands who want to promote inclusivity, body positivism, and empowerment.
Translating for cosmetic brands is challenging work which needs to consider societal changes and new trends with a marketing approach. Transcreation is often requested, and copywriting skills are very welcome. As a beauty translator, you should localize the content according to the companies’ needs, respecting their style guide and voice while focusing on their buyer persona. You do not only have to translate, but you should also localize the texts because, for example, not all countries have the same holiday calendar — Mother’s Day is not celebrated the same day around the globe. If you fail, it jeopardizes the entire marketing campaign. Not to mention how quickly beauty trends change — from the nine-step Korean skincare routine to skinimalism, it’s often a matter of days.
Tiziana Bottone is an Italian translator, proofreader, and SEO expert. After completing her B.A. in Foreign Languages and Literatures in 2013, she moved to Spain, where she is currently living. She translates from English, Spanish, and Portuguese to Italian, and her fields of expertise are Fashion and Beauty, Marketing, and Tourism.