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

  • 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.