Translation Bafflement

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!

Author: Doug Nix

+DougNix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. ( 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. Follow me on

  • 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.

  • @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.