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  • Writer's pictureIan Mac Eochagáin

Aesop: the luxury brand that scrimps on translations?


You may be a devotee of posh soap maker Aesop’s products, or at least set foot in one of their chic, minimalist shops. A lot of people are hooked on it, which shows in its financial performance. The highly profitable company was recently bought by L’Oréal for $2.5 billion.


My own impression of the brand had, until recently, been one of fastidious luxury down to the last detail. A closer look at the inside of a box has disabused me of that notion.


Inside the box of the Murasaki Aromatique incense sticks there is a small sheet of paper with instructions in several languages. It’s the sort of thing no one usually reads, but as I’m always interested in how these things are translated, I do. When we unfold the sheet, we see the headings, each of which is supposed to be the name of a language:


English

Français

Dansk

Deutsch

Español

Suomalainen



Or: English, French, Danish, German, Spanish and Finnish. However, the Finnish word for “Finnish” is wrong. “Suomalainen” means the adjective “Finnish”, or the noun “Finn”, not the noun “Finnish (language)”. “Suomalainen omena”: “a Finnish apple”. “Hän on suomalainen”: “he is Finnish”. The Finnish for the Finnish language is “suomi”.


Inattention to detail

This is quite a funny slip for such a wealthy company. It may point to a couple of things. First, how did “suomalainen” and not “suomi” end up in the spot reserved for “Finnish” as in “language”?


One possibility is that a translation agency was given a list of all the languages and told to translate them all into those languages. If the translator was given nothing more than a list of words like “English”, “French” and “Finnish”, with no context whatsoever, they can be forgiven for translating “Finnish” as “suomalainen”. It’s not wrong: it means “Finnish”, just the adjective, not the noun.


Because one person was probably not asked to translate from English to fifteen languages, I think another possibility is more likely. The list of languages was run through machine translation, and the result was used with no further questions asked.


I don’t know why the list of languages, the headings you see in the picture above, were translated separately from the body text that follows them. No sane Finnish translator would translate “Finnish” as “suomalainen” if they were given both the heading and the subsequent copy. It may be that the language-name headings are used in all instruction leaflets in all products, whereas the body texts are translated individually for each product.


Apart from the forensics of how this incorrect translation ended up in print, there’s another question. Why doesn’t Aesop check the final printed product with a specialist of every language concerned before printing these instruction leaflets in the millions? It would simply be a matter of sending a PDF of the finished leaflet to the translator to that language and asking if it looked OK.


I don’t know if Aesop keeps its translations in-house or outsources them. However it does it, there’s a flaw in the process. It’s either using a cheap translation agency which doesn’t give its translators enough context about the words they translate, or it’s cutting corners in its own content production process, not checking the leaflets are correct before they go to print.


Luxury or knock-off?

Little flaws like this make a beauty brand’s luxury seem only skin deep. Having paid €30 for my incense sticks, I feel cheated when I see “suomalainen” instead of “suomi” on the leaflet inside. It’s like finding a spelling mistake in the menu of a fine dining restaurant. It’s as correct as those confusing instructions we often read for electronics made in China.


Perhaps Aesop isn’t too bothered: there isn’t even an Aesop store in Finland. (We have to go to one of the brand’s Stockholm locations for our parsley seed eye serum.) Finns might not be a priority market for the brand, but they are a rich one. It’s at least worth trying to get the basics right for these potential customers.


Are you a knock-off Chinese DVD player or a luxury cosmetics brand? That’s the choice Aesop has to make. Unless it gets every single detail right, the brand will look cheap by default. It’s not just every word that has to be perfect: the entire context has to be too.



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