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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!

3 thoughts on “Translation Bafflement

  1. 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.

  2. @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…

  3. 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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