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.

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  • 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.