The language of luxury and the luxury of language

The following is an extract in English of a contribution to Traduire, the magazine published twice a year by SFT, the French association of translators. The December 2016 issue was dedicated to luxury, fashion and translation.

No. 235 – Luxe, mode… et traduction!
Published by SFT – Société française des traducteurs, December 2016

In this article I would like to share a few thoughts about the language of luxury, with some regard to the Italian language and from the point of view of a language professional like myself.

Can words be devalued by overuse?

Let’s start from the word ‘luxury’ itself. Today, the term ‘luxury’ has become so inflated that anything can be defined as such, from toilet paper to jewellery.

The result is that truly high-end brands, products and services have virtually banned the term from their vocabulary, replacing it, in the best cases, with a well-structured tone of voice capable of delivering their unique ‘concept’ of luxury to the end customer: from luxury to the experience of luxury.

In Italian the term translates as lusso, and together with its adjective lussuoso and related terms such as deluxe and prestigioso, has undergone the same destiny of its English counterpart: so broadly overused that the term itself has lost its original, élitarian significance.

Counter strategies

To counteract the overuse of these overused terms, one strategy is substituting them with others, deemed to be not so inflated and expressing a similar feeling, the experience of luxury.

In the automotive sector for instance, a British high-end brand I regularly work with instructed all EU translators to substitute any occurrence of ‘luxury’ in the original text (so, still present in English) with ‘premium’. But are the two terms really interchangeable? To me, premium means getting superior or additional services and products by paying more, while luxury has a more general, overarching, ideal feeling to it, stretching beyond merely material benefits. The assumption made here by the brand is either that the target market would not perceive the difference, accepting premium as a valid descriptor of luxury, or that the two terms are synonyms.

Another strategy, certainly more structured than the one above, to provide for the feeling of luxury without actually saying the word out loud is creating an ad-hoc, specific brand language, capable of expressing the brand values, identity and its exclusive take on luxury. This is very interesting from a translator’s or transcreator’s point of view, as it means replicating the same exercise made by the original writers, but going still a bit further: not only adapting the original language of luxury into the local language, but recreating the whole world of the brand into the target language, matching it on one side with the natural characteristics of the brand and on the other with the local culture and sensibility.

Language as a differentiator: the hotel case

Language can help luxury brands differentiate themselves from the competition. A well-chiselled brand language and tone of voice should reflect the brand personality, and that of its customers as well. A good example of language diversity within the same luxury segment is the hospitality sector, which is among my choice fields of work.

As we all know from reading numberless tedious hotel descriptions, high-end hotels tend to have luxury guestrooms, luxury services, premium suites, élite loyalty programmes, and the like. And standard Italian descriptions are no less boring, trust me. So, how can a luxury hotel or hotel brand really stand out from the crowd? Language and communication are powerful tools to do that. Let’s take a large, well-known international hotel group [not mentioned by name in the published article].

This group owns a varied portfolio of brands, some of which are in the high-end market of hospitality stars. A few years ago, before the big crisis of 2009, when many companies still deemed language and communication worth investing in, the group did an amazing job in extracting the true essence of each brand and expressing it through a distinct brand voice and register: each brand speaking in a different voice, informing the language of its promotional materials, the language of staff and sales, of marketing promotions, right down to the in-room literature.

I was lucky enough to participate in the creative adaptation of the original US English communication style into Italian and I remember many interesting conversations with hotel management and employees on how to best recreate that same feel and approach for the Italian market, without sounding too American and avoiding false steps in the localization of the brand pillars.

The four hotel brands, all upscale, deliver their unique sense and experience of luxury, each clearly different from the other, also by using a specific register and language, which in their turn reflect the actual differences among the hotel interiors, standards, aspirations and among their guests’ attitudes as well. Certainly the visual identity is key to creating a brand identity, but language takes it to the next level, helping you feel and imagine the experience you might have. And doing this, it brings the brand to life.

Luxury as the language of emotions

We could say luxury is the language of emotions: as mentioned earlier, we have moved from the mention of luxury to explaining why and how something can be ascribed to the world of luxury. All these brands convey their own sense of luxury through a choice of vocabulary which is very different one from the other, reflecting their unique positioning in the market.

So it seems there is no specific language of luxury, at least today, but languages – in the plural – connecting the brand positioning and its idea or concept of luxury. I’d even say its authenticity as a brand. It’s as if each brand explores a difference nuance of the luxury universe. Each luxury brand should ideally have its own writing style, which is very difficult to replicate in different languages: and that’s why transcreation and translation professionals should always have a central part in crafting the local campaigns and communications.

Translating worlds, not words

Single words can be easy to translate – words like luxury, elegance, premium – but the meaning they have in each country and culture can vary greatly, as language is nurtured by the people speaking and writing it, by their mentality, habits, sensibility, and today by the technology they use as well.

Writing, and even more so translating and transcreating, is an artisanal job: crafting an ad-hoc language and communication universe around a brand is in itself a sign of luxury, in the same way craftsmanship has become more and more a key feature in today’s understanding of luxury.

Craftsmanship. Personalization. And relativity

Besides craftsmanship, contemporary luxury intersects with the concept of personalization. And, to continue with the example of hospitality, the importance of this concept has become so central that in the past few years that it gave birth to many ‘collections’ of hotels: collections of independent luxury hotels, which while adhering to common principles of hôtellerie and a common marketing circuit, retain their distinct personality – and are celebrated just for that -, expressing their own unique sense of luxury hospitality. From a linguistic point of view, this represents an even further challenge for writers and transcreators, as it means creating and localizing a unique language and tone of voice not just for a brand, but for each single hotel, based on its unique appeal, nature and offer.

Craftsmanship. Personalization. And relativity. Luxury is subjective (depending on the individual’s evaluation), dynamic (evolving with time) and relative (depending on the cultural context).

The concept of luxury changes and evolves through time: for my parents, a television set was pure luxury when they got married in 1960; for us today, it is a given, and for some, ‘not’ having a tv set is a sign of luxury. But again this is true for developed countries and is not for developing ones. Obviously, language, as a reflection of life, evolves too, or maybe not so much or not only the language in itself, but the way we use it. Part of the job of a transcreator is to evaluate all these factors, becoming a true language curation specialist, not a small task indeed.

The luxury of language

In the language of luxury, language should become an indication of luxury itself.

Creating a language capable of conveying a brand specific meaning of luxury,  that’s a true sign of luxury. It doesn’t make much sense, especially to me as a communication and language specialist, going to the length of working out in details a brand specificity and uniqueness, and producing stunning and engaging photography and materials, if then the communication is full of ‘bespoke’ and ‘exclusive’ clichés.

When any brand can claim bespoke and exclusive attributes, words start losing meaning.

And content and brand identity do too. To truly stand out you need to create a verbal identity, and with that verbal identity tell the story of the brand, a story based on reality and not just a storytelling exercise: the story and aspirations of its people, the values which inspire them, how these values come to life and inform the brand products and services. Its unique take on the universe of luxury.


About the author
I am an Italian specialist in translation and proofediting, working in the marketing, creative and legal fields. I put my many years of experience to the advantage of my clients by creating texts resonating with the Italian-speaking audience and making brands locally relevant. Connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter or visit my website.

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