Beauty and Culture – The Hurdles in Translating for the Cosmetics Industry

Beauty and Culture – The Hurdles in Translating for the Cosmetics Industry

The Relationship Between Beauty and Culture

Carnival is upon us, and we can’t help but think about all the beautiful clothes and makeup used on this occasion. Carnival is held in various parts of the world and is packed with cultural traditions. What is the relationship between beauty and culture? How does the concept of beauty change across different cultures?  And in what ways does it affect the world of translation?

Beauty and culture

Cultural influences guide our perception of beauty, which takes on a different meaning not only across different countries but also across different ages and eras. Indeed, Americans in the fifties conceived beauty differently from today.

Beauty and culture

In most European countries, a slim figure with flawless skin is the ideal of beauty, whereas in Africa, a larger figure is considered beautiful.

To achieve this ideal of beauty, women (and, most recently, also men) have been experimenting with cosmetics and beauty aids for a long time. Some people go to great lengths to alter their appearance and conform with what society considers beautiful.

Religion, as part of a culture, also has its influence on beauty. In Hinduism for example, they portray Goddesses as beautiful, making beauty a godly quality. In the Muslim religion, instead, they abhor things like nudity and women must wear a veil to hide their face from everyone except their husbands.

Today’s Ideals of Beauty and Culture Pride

However, today’s ideals of beauty are far more inclusive than they were in the past. Thanks to social media, in particular Instagram, a lot of celebrities, whose beauty is not the “standard” one, encourage women and teenagers to be proud of their appearance and culture. They are challenging body and beauty standards by posting images of their “imperfections” on Instagram. Among these, we can point out Winnie Harlow, who proudly shows her vitiligo, or the singer Lizzo, who uses Instagram to normalize cellulite. Some of them have their own beauty line, such as the young actress Zendaya, whose clothing line is gender fluid. Others show their pride in their cultural traits, such as lots of African women smiling while posting their curly, thick hair.

Celebrities not only use pictures but also captions to promote self-worth.

Your self-worth is determined by you. You don’t have to depend on someone telling you who you are. – Beyonce

I love my body, and I would never change anything about it. I’m not asking you to like my body. I’m just asking you to let me be me. – Serena Williams

Cosmetic brands also promote self-love with their mottos.

Because you’re worth it. – L’Oréal

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline. – Maybelline

Beauty for all. – Fenty Beauty

Be who you are. – Bobbie Brown

The Origins of Cosmetics

Women and men have been wearing cosmetics for centuries, although the style has undergone a lot of changes.

The origins of cosmetics date back to the first dynasty of Egypt: Egyptians used powdered coal for their eyes and henna for their lips, and the predominant colour was dark green.

Greeks and Romans had opposite views on the use of cosmetics: the former went easy on makeup, which only courtesans used, the latter made such an excessive use of it that it sometimes led to skin damage.

In Japan, Geishas used extreme beauty practises to keep their face and body white.

During the Renaissance and Elizabethan age, pale faces and large foreheads were signs of wealth. Indeed, women used to pluck their hair out from their natural position to get a larger forehead. Bare eyebrows too were considered a sign of beauty, as evidenced by Queen Elizabeth I.

We all know the expression “no pain, no gain”, and when it comes to beauty, it couldn’t be truer. Indeed, there are countless examples of the painful measures some women undergo to look beautiful. We can mention the Palaung women (a Myanmar tribe), also called “giraffe women”, who place lots of rings around their neck to make it longer. They force their neck to the point that, without the rings, it couldn’t support their head.

The Language of Cosmetic Advertisements

When we think of cosmetic products, we think about all the beauty slogans used in advertisements, whatever the language may be. A successful advertisement makes consumers want to buy, and for this reason, they choose the words carefully. Given the fact that a slogan is made up of only a few words, it is important that these are catchy and appealing. Particular attention is paid to the use of adjectives and noun-phrases. Indeed, usually, they avoid verbs, and adjectives are at the core of slogans, e.g., “For a Cleaner, Greener World” (Garnier Fructis) or “White is Purity” (Nivea). Rhymes as well are essential to get consumers’ attention, as in “Stronger to go longer” (Pantene).

Another reason why it is important to choose words carefully is the target market. Indeed, every culture has its own “taboos” and advertisers must avoid being offensive at all costs when creating advertisements. This is what happened, for example, with some of Nivea’s slogans. In a Facebook post, the famous brand promoted a deodorant for women by using the slogan “White is Purity” to mean that the deodorant was invisible on black or white skin. They were immediately bombarded with comments accusing them of being racist. So, choosing appropriate words and selecting careful translations subsequently are crucial in any cosmetics campaign.

How has makeup changed over the last century?

As times change, cosmetic brands must reinvent themselves. During the 1900’s, movie stars and musicians used makeup. In 1909, Max Factor created their own beauty lab to create products for the stars. In the 1920’s, lips became the focal point of women’s faces, whereas in the 1930’s, the ideal beauty was having slim eyelashes and thin eyebrows and, in the 1960’s, it moved towards eye makeup. By 2010, men too started using makeup and lots of them are now going viral on YouTube and Tik Tok profiles.

Over the last two years, cosmetic brands have suffered losses due to COVID-19. Being locked in their homes, with no possibility of going out and working mostly behind a screen, women have not had the need to wear makeup the way they used to. However, as the demand for lipsticks and eyeshadows went down, the demand for skin-care products went up because of the effects of long-term use of face masks.

The Beauty Industry and Translation

So how does translation relate to cosmetics?  The beauty industry is a global business spreading across many cultures and borders. All multinational beauty companies started out locally and grew internationally with the help of advertising and marketing experts. Because of its worldwide reach, the beauty industry needs to be translated in numerous languages. Each language has its own characteristics. An example is the English “Protect & Perfect”, whose translation in French is Protection et Perfection. In the first case, we can see how, in the English language, it is all about the verbs, whereas the French language gives preference to nouns.

There are five qualities to look for in a translator working within the beauty industry field:

  • Style: it is the most important one because it is everything when it comes to beauty brands. Indeed, it is essential to render the target text with the same elegance as the source text.
  • Knowledge of terminology: translators must be up to date with market trends. For example, the new generation does not use the word “anti” in expressions such as “anti-age”, rather they prefer expressions such as “pro-age”.
  • Experience: it is important to avoid a misleading translation.
  • Marketing acumen: since cosmetics is based on marketing strategy, it is important to understand it and to play with slogans to catch the consumers’ attention.
  • Consistency: it is important to be consistent when translating to avoid misunderstandings.

Learn more about the beauty industry, culture and translation – Translate your cosmetic products!

Translators always face a lot of challenges. At LingoStar, we love taking on new challenges. We can translate your cosmetic products into any foreign language as we provide translation services in any language you may need. Please request a free translation quote or email us at We’ll be happy to help you with your translation.

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