By Liza Tripp and Denise Jacobs
Why jewelry translation? For starters, jewelry houses are businesses like any other and require a broad range of services. It should thus not come as a shock that translators in unrelated fields may well come across jewelry-related text at one point or another in documents running the gamut from financial reports to corporate social responsibility plans to lengthy litigation documents. In fact, one of your authors’ first run-ins with the topic was as a legal translator on an intellectual property case involving counterfeit designs. Another recent “legal” assignment centered around diamond mining. Jewelry, much like the broader sector of fashion to which it belongs, has a funny way of popping up in different places.
The expansive reach of the jewelry sector is now more apparent than ever. Indeed, high-end jewelry sales exploded during the pandemic. The financially savvy sought “hard assets” with tangible value as a sound investment in the face of uncertain markets. With travel halted, high-end buyers saw value in timeless, “forever” pieces. In the short-term, jewelry was perfect for waist-up Zoom calls. Online retail platforms, already developing pre-pandemic, further expanded to meet the need during this period, reaching a broad range of buyers who might previously have only purchased such expensive items in person.[i]
Translation facilitates all of these business processes. And knowing the difference between “bijouterie” (most often “fashion jewelry” or “costume jewelry,” “joaillerie” (fine jewelry), and “haute joaillerie” (high jewelry) is essential. What’s the difference between fine jewelry and high jewelry? Depending on the piece, millions of dollars (quite an expensive translation error).
Jewels might seem a frivolity to some, yet the process of producing jewelry requires a high-degree of precision and craftspersonship. The cuts and grading of precious stones are precise and technical, the metalsmithing techniques used to set them complex and nuanced. Especially now, buyers also want to know where materials have been sourced, and companies are trying hard to create transparency in their process. The result for a translator is that you might find yourself translating diamond cuts on one line, metalsmithing terms on another, and mining terms in the next.
Translation of this kind also entails a distinct localization process, and UK and US English are not always equivalent for this purpose. Aside from differing spellings, such as jewelry (US) vs. jewellery (UK), US English uses “carat” for stones and “karat” for metals, while UK English uses “carat” for both metals and stones. Clients seeking product descriptions and press materials will often want separate UK and US versions to best market their products.
Jewelry houses and designers are also incredibly purposeful in developing their concepts and branding. A given collection may be devised to evoke a certain historical era (say Egyptian hieroglyphs, or 18th century Versailles). A house might refer back to its own historical archives, as in Chanel’s “1932” and “Allure Céleste” high jewelry collections, both of which allude to Chanel’s first “Bijoux de Diamants” collection of constellation-themed jewels. Dior’s “Dior à Versailles” collection brought back the concept of Victorian secret jewelry, with its hidden boxes and drawers. Designer Elie Top’s pieces often use blackened silver to lessen the pieces’ “jeweled effect” [ii] and feature a mixture of round and sharp objects to suggest the idea of jewelry worn as armor. Collections might feature symbolic use of animals like the lion (Chanel), serpents (Bulgari), or panthers (Cartier).
The symbolic nature of the pieces themselves is sometimes rendered more difficult to translate by the carefully chosen language used to describe them. Indeed, a designer develops a certain vocabulary for a given collection, with its specific themes and symbols. So as jewelry translators, we are often translating language that is already a translation of those themes and symbols—the serpent bracelet crafted to signify sensuality and metamorphosis for example, or Cartier’s use of the panther as a symbol of power and ferocity.[iii] Since that imagery and symbolism play a large part in how jewelry collections are designed, crafted, and ultimately marketed, it is important to ensure that the target language echoes the tone and register of the source.
Figures of speech, such as synecdoche and metonymy, present further challenges, not least because they can be so easy to miss when translating. For example, the stylish “parure en platine et diamants” below would be best rendered as “a platinum and diamond set,” or “platinum diamond ring and bracelet”—but not as a “platinum and diamond parure.” That is because French mainly uses “parure” synecdochally to merely refer to individual “pieces” or “jewels.”
Platinum and diamond set, from Vogue Japan, 2003.[iv]
Conversely, use of the English “parure” ends up evoking something of a different register entirely. That is because “parure” in English does not function synecdochally, but quite specifically and definitively refers to a historical set of up to seven jewels (and always featuring a tiara!).
Similarly, while “un brillant” technically refers to a brilliant-cut diamond, a cut serving to best highlight the sparkle of the stone, it appears most often in French as a metonym when referring to diamond accents on a given piece:
“Quelques grammes de platine orné d’une pincée de brillants continuent de condenser l’un des axes stylistiques majeurs de la griffe.”
“A few grams of platinum embellished with a sprinkling of diamonds continue to embody one of the brand’s major approaches to style.”[v]
Knowing the difference demands a proper analysis of context and register, and ideally a decent amount of background knowledge about the house’s style and pieces, including the materials they most often use.
It may prove tricky, but really understanding the use of metonymy and synecdoche in the source and target languages can often unlock a sentence that sounds “off.” In the case of parure, if we were to incorrectly translate “parure” as “parure” in English, we would add too much information, not to mention shift its historical context. If we fail to identify “brillants” as a metonym and translate them as “brilliant-cut diamonds,” we would again be overtranslating, shifting the focus of a piece from elegant minimalism to showy extravagance.
Nevertheless, such language is easy to mistranslate. This is perhaps because such words “present” as tangible objects, which we are more likely to accept as having a single definition. We think, “it’s an object,” and decide it can only map to one other equal object! Yet in fact, language often functions more figuratively.
Similarly, the use of English in French (and French in English) can further hinder clarity, even when the words themselves seem to have clear, objective equivalents. “Maison” in jewelry texts is most times best rendered as “maison” in English (but sometimes, too, as “house”). The jewels are crafted in these “maisons”—“ateliers” in English. We rarely see the English word “workshops,” and certainly never “factory floor” or “production area.” The selected register can either further reinforce the status and cachet of a given jewelry designer, or if wrong, can completely undermine them.
Sometimes a failure to recast the English can lead the text (and the description of the piece) into a completely bizarre (and unintentional) direction. Consider the term “rock’n’roll” in the French below:
“…sa ligne en circonvolution, inspirée du Colisée romain, s’agrémente aujourd’hui de picots qui rendent les bagues plus rock’n’roll (à partir de 2 700 euros en or rose et céramique).
“The spiral lines, inspired by the Roman Colosseum, were enlivened by studs, giving the rings an edgier look (starting at €2,700 in rose gold and ceramic).”[vi]
The term in French connotes how the studs create dimension and lend “edge” to the style. This is certainly not a piece meant to be paired with a 1950s poodle skirt. While it can be tempting to leave English source words in the translation, if you consider the look of the piece, the design influences, the trends of the collection and maison to which it belongs, more often than not, different English is required to properly translate the source description.
Similarly, consider the French “adorables” in the example below:
“Les fins anneaux en or texturé par un serti poinçon et relevé d’un micro-brillant de 0,03 carat sont adorables (990 euros)…”
“Fine rings made of textured gold, hand-set using the serti poinçon technique and embellished with a 0.03-carat microdiamond, are lovely ($1,000)…”[vii]
Here, these $1,000 rings are anything but “adorable.” Conversely, using “lovely” allows us to maintain the source text’s sophisticated, refined feel—one commensurate with both the overall design sensibility of the collection and the corresponding expenditure.
It is often what we might call the designer’s idiolect that translators must learn to seek out and respect. For example, consider the French “vanités” in two very different examples below.
“ne s’embarrasse guère des vanités de son temps,” simply translated to “that is unconcerned with the vagaries of trends.”[viii]
Yet elsewhere in the same text, the word serves to evoke a whole concept and jewelry philosophy:
“Prônant un certain humanisme joaillier, Attilio Codognato est l’un des derniers seigneurs de Venise dont les vanités baroques, les serpents tentateurs et les croix byzantines composent un univers précieux auquel les initiés vouent un culte.”
“Extolling a certain jewelry humanism, Attilio Codognato is one of the last masters of Venice, and his baroque vanitas objects, tempting serpents and Byzantine crosses form a precious world that insiders worship.”[ix]
Here, vanitas is the key word to evoking Codognato’s particular brand of “Memento Mori” jewelry, a genre that features skulls, bones, snakes—morbid references intended to remind the wearer by juxtaposition of the importance of living. Thus, in one example, the word serves to indicate a carefree disregard, while in the other, it is the linchpin around which a jewelry designer’s entire body of work centers.
As translators, our work begins with knowing the differences between the two and reflecting the intention behind the words (as we can best determine it), through our language choices. While the result is naturally words, the best translators in this field often start with a picture. If none is provided, it is essential to find similar examples from the same house or designer.
Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies have a broad array of pieces with descriptions and detailed photos. Many of the jewelry houses have detailed, often multilingual websites that you can consult to see how certain pieces and collections are referred to in English. It can also be helpful to look at a designer’s past collections to get a feel for their style influences, as well as recurring looks and techniques used. Fashion magazines like Vogue and Town & Country frequently cover jewelry lines and designers, as does the New York Times. International versions of Vogue are not translations of American Vogue but can often be mined for target language terms.
Lastly, seemingly unlikely sources like Pinterest and Instagram can also be of help, if for no other reason than the plethora of photos. A Google search set to “images only” can provide similar results. It can also be helpful to create and gradually modify an Instagram feed that covers the areas in which you work most frequently. This allows you to build a vocabulary over time and get used to the tone and feel of different houses.
Anything not to be a fashion (or a jewelry) translation victim!
Liza Tripp has been a translator of French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese to English for over 15 years, specializing in the luxury fashion and legal sectors. She most recently translated Fabienne Reybaud’s Jewelry Guide: The Ultimate Compendium with Denise Jacobs and Barbara Mellor. (Assouline, publication pending for December 2022.) She holds a BA in French translation from Barnard College, an M.Phil. from the Graduate School and University Center of the City of New York, and a French to English Certificate in Translation from NYU SCPS. She is ATA-certified from French to English. Websites: www.lizatripp.com, www.fashionabletranslation.com
Denise Jacobs is a French to English translator focusing on illustrated books about fashion, jewelry, art, travel, and the French lifestyle. She has an MA and M.Phil. in French literature from Columbia University. She has translated more than 40 published books, in addition to providing translations for several biographies, documentaries, and television news program segments. Websites: www.deniserjacobs.com, www.fashionabletranslation.com
[i] Victoria Gomelsky, “Even in a Pandemic, Fine Jewelry is Selling,” New York Times, December 3, 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/fashion/jewelry-rising-sales-pandemic-.html.
[ii] Fabienne Reybaud, Jewelry Guide: The Ultimate Compendium, trans. Jacobs, Denise, Barbara Mellor, and Liza Tripp. (New York: Assouline, 2022), 176.
[iii] Anahita Moussavian and Carrie Seim, Cartier’s iconic panther jewelry seduces a new generation, New York Post, May 6, 2022. https://nypost.com/2022/05/06/cartiers-iconic-panther-jewelry-seduces-a-new-generation/.
[iv] Fabienne Reybaud, Jewelry Guide: The Ultimate Compendium, trans. Jacobs, Mellor, and Tripp. (New York: Assouline, 2022), 244.
[v] Fabienne Reybaud, Jewelry Guide: The Ultimate Compendium, trans. Jacobs, Mellor, and Tripp. (New York: Assouline, 2022), 135.
[vi] Fabienne Reybaud, Jewelry Guide: The Ultimate Compendium, trans. Jacobs, Mellor, and Tripp. (New York: Assouline, 2022), 125.
[vii] Fabienne Reybaud, Jewelry Guide: The Ultimate Compendium, trans. Jacobs, Mellor, and Tripp. (New York: Assouline, 2022), 165.
[viii] Fabienne Reybaud, Jewelry Guide: The Ultimate Compendium, trans. Jacobs, Mellor, and Tripp. (New York: Assouline, 2022), 135.
[ix] Fabienne Reybaud, Jewelry Guide: The Ultimate Compendium, trans. Jacobs, Mellor, and Tripp. (New York: Assouline, 2022), 148.