Translating fragrances

An art at the crossroad of literature, poetry and music




One of the most passionating adventures that my work as freelance translator offers me is dealing with texts about fragrances. This is because describing a fragrance is very challenging and requires highly poetic words and an inspiring imagery.




Because we have not specific words or adjectives for what we can smell. The only means we have to talk about a fragrance or a smell is to use matphors, which can make us understant the effect that that particular fragrance has on us and on our imagination.


A very good example of this is Charles Baudelaire’s Parfum Exotique (Exotic perfume) poem which describes the perfume of the poet’s lover as a trip to an exotic land unravelling itself as the fragrance develps its captivating smell from the top notes to the middle (or heart) notes and to the base notes, that is from the most volatile to the most lasting ones.


Image via
Image via


Another example of a fragrance’s description built on metaphors and comparisons is the description of House of Hermès’ Le Jardin de Monsieur Li made by Hermès’ perfumer, Mr Jean-Claude Ellena:


“I remembered the smell of ponds, the smell of jasmine, the smell of wet stones, of plum trees, kumquats and giant bamboos. It was all there, and in the ponds there were even carp steadily working towards their hundredth birthday.”

Jean-Claude Ellena


Le Jardin de Monsieur Li, Hermès
Le Jardin de Monsieur Li, Hermès


But is a fragrance is very difficult to describe it is also because of its quality of making us recall lost memories and thus being deeply linked to our own life experience. The beautiful R.E.M.’s Find the River tells about a man’s life through the use of a list of spices and scents (bayberry, bergamot, vetiver, coriander, ginger, lemon)… Would you use the same raw materials to describe your own life?


A fragrance’s ingredients



I hope now you have a better idea of why writing, talking and translating about fragrances is so hard: it requires not only a technical knowledge but also a great sensibility… even more since most of the times we can not smell the fragrance we have to write about!


And if the fragrance we have to talk about belongs to the glamourous and magical realm of Art Perfumery, our task becomes yet more challanging!


I will tell you more about Art Perfumery after my visit to Esxence, the international Art Perfumery fair which will be held in Milan from March 31st to April 3rd.


So stay tuned!






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