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Translation Bafflement

2012 December 24

iStock_000009386795Small - Photo of Instruction manualI’ve been notic­ing a trend with some of my clients that I am hav­ing a really hard time under­stand­ing — maybe a reader can help me get this…

A basic require­ment in the EU is that man­u­als and other infor­ma­tion a man­u­fac­turer pro­vides to their cus­tomer be pro­vided in the offi­cial lan­guage of the coun­try where the prod­uct is being sold. One pos­si­ble way around this is to pro­vide a graph­i­cal set of instruc­tions. Probably the best exam­ple of this is IKEA, where every­thing is done graphically.

To me, this is only log­i­cal, after all, if I buy a prod­uct I’d like to be able to read the instruc­tions in English, and I can’t imag­ine that other peo­ple wouldn’t want to read the instruc­tions in their native lan­guage too.

But here’s the thing—I reg­u­larly have clients who don’t want to trans­late their instruc­tion man­u­als. They look for every pos­si­ble excuse, from ‘those guys didn’t do it’, refer­ring to a com­peti­tor, to ‘the cus­tomer speaks and reads English, so we don’t need to trans­late’. The first excuse is laugh­able in my opin­ion, and the last one is at least some­what plau­si­ble, but the law requires trans­la­tion. Simple. Sell the prod­uct in Germany, pro­vide instruc­tions in German. Sell it in Italy, pro­vide instruc­tions in Italian.

IKEA Desk Chair Instructions
Graphical Instructions, IKEA Style

This even holds true here in Canada where I live. In most of Canada, English is pre­dom­i­nant, but every pack­age is marked in English and French, and instruc­tions are pro­vided in English and French. Why? Because we have two offi­cial lan­guages, English and French.

So what’s the big deal? I under­stand that there is a cost attached to trans­la­tion, but it’s a cost of doing busi­ness in another mar­ket and should have been eas­ily fore­see­able in devel­op­ing the prod­uct budget.

If you can explain this to me, I’d love to hear from you!

Post By Doug Nix (94 Posts)

+DougNix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. (http://​www​.com​pli​an​cein​sight​.ca) in Kitchener, Ontario, and is Lead Author and Managing Editor of the Machinery Safety 101 blog.

Doug’s work includes teach­ing machin­ery risk assess­ment tech­niques pri­vately and through Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, as well as pro­vid­ing tech­ni­cal ser­vices and train­ing pro­grams to clients related to risk assess­ment, indus­trial machin­ery safety, safety-​​related con­trol sys­tem inte­gra­tion and reli­a­bil­ity, laser safety and reg­u­la­tory conformity.

Website: → Compliance inSight Consulting Inc.


  • ajk­ilo

    Yes, to a cer­tain extend it is a ques­tion of money. And, yes again, it’s sim­ply the law. However, CE-​​country (which is not iden­ti­cal with just the European Union) has 23 offi­cial lan­guages. Thus, any­body doing busi­ness on a CE-​​country wide scale has to fore­cast the cost for trans­la­tions in all these lan­guages. But besides language-​​barriers there are also cul­tural bar­ri­ers that have to be taken into account. Translations should best be made by native speak­ers of the tar­get lan­guage, who can trans­late the orig­i­nal text into their tongue with­out dis­tort­ing the orig­i­nal tech­ni­cal con­tent and mean­ing of an instruc­tion manual.This often is a big­ger hur­dle than “just” the mon­e­tary aspect.
    Ikea is not the best exam­ple, because they only pro­vide assem­bly guide­lines. The instruc­tion man­ual for com­mer­cial goods of a higher tech­ni­cal level con­tain far more than just assem­bly guide­lines, start­ing with safety instruc­tions, han­dling & stor­age, oper­at­ing details, trou­ble shoot­ing and last-​​not-​​least schemat­ics & dia­grams. Unfortunately, most of that can’t be com­mu­ni­cated with pic­tures and pic­tograms only.

  • DougNix

    @cietronic I know you are cor­rect when you say ‘nobody likes to spend money in advance on trans­la­tion except the client ask in spe­cific’, but it’s a legal require­ment. The CE Marking direc­tives per­mit the buyer to request addi­tional lan­guages if the work­force in their plant speaks a lan­guage other than the offi­cial lan­guage, but that does not excuse the need to pub­lish the infor­ma­tion in the offi­cial lan­guage. 
    So it sounds like it’s pri­mar­ily a money thing…

  • cietronic

    You’re totally right with your state­ment Doug, but I realise more and more that nobody like to spend money in advance on trans­la­tion except the client ask in spe­cific. What I do cur­rently is build­ing up aware­ness, but rec­om­mend trans­la­tion only if explic­itly sold into a spe­cific EU coun­try. It seems dif­fer­ent, based on the goods and the required knowl­edge through the end-​​user e.g. oper­a­tor of an machinery.

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