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back to index backGLOBALtalk August,  2006


Are you Linguistically Legal for European Business?

Vegetarian chicken curry.

That is what I read on a menu whilst on one of many of my global travels!  Do I get a vegetarian chicken, a vegetarian curry with some chicken thrown in or a chicken curry with vegetables? If I were allergic to chicken, or to vegetarian chickens even, or to chicken alternatives, how can I be sure of my own safety? Having clear, understandable information about what we purchase is very important and can be a life-or-death issue in some cases, but how do we know the linguistic regulations when entering a continent like Europe?

With more than 450 million people and a substantial percentage of high-earning individuals in the 25 member states, the European Union (EU) offers a lucrative market for foreign investment.  But what legal issues need to be taken into account in order to sell in those countries?

There are many issues which a United States (US) company for example, would need to take into consideration, such as data protection issues, whether a specific product fits the market culturally and different legal systems. This article however, will focus on the linguistic issues which companies should consider before taking a product to Europe.

Language and culture in the EU

With 20 official languages in the EU, 21 from January 2007 and many more non-official languages, communication is an important issue for Europe's nearly half billion inhabitants. It is one of the most important factors contributing to cultural diversity and the EU is keen to maintain language and culture within the EU member states. Article 3 of the Treaty establishing the European Community has as its aim to contribute to "the flowering of the cultures of the Member States". Article I-3 (3) of the Constitutional Treaty states:

It [the European Union] shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.

General product safety

An umbrella law covers language regulation in relation to product safety. If a product poses risks in certain conditions, then the language used must be clear and presented in the official language of the country in which it is sold. The General Product Safety Directive 2001/95/EC Article 8-1-B-1 states:

For any product that could pose risks in certain conditions:
(i) to require that it be marked with suitable, clearly worded and easily comprehensible warnings, in the official languages of the Member State in which the product is marketed, on the risks it may present.

So in general terms, if your product could pose risks in any form, then it would be wise to cover it from a local language perspective.


Language for consumers

In addition to the directive relating to general product safety, there are many different directives relating to labelling, instructions for use, assembly instructions, precautions regarding employment for use and any warnings which are intended for the final user of the product or service.

As with the general products, the specifications are mostly in the interest of safety to consumers. Information which is difficult to understand or read could have serious repercussions for the health and safety of a consumer. Examples are consumers with allergies, illnesses such as diabetes, those on particular diets or users of electrical appliances. In the latter for example, the Council Directive 92/75/EEC of 22 September 1992 refers to product information for users of household appliances. It states clearly in Article 4-a:

Whenever an appliance specified in an implementing directive is displayed, dealers shall attach an appropriate label, in the clearly visible position specified in the relevant implementing directive, and in the relevant language version.

The Council Resolution of 17 December 1998 on operating instructions for technical consumer goods states:

Operating instructions for technical consumer goods are often perceived by consumers as inadequate, both because they are unclear and present language difficulties, owing to faulty translations or to the use of terms which are too complex……the use of the appropriate language is crucial for clear, user-friendly operating instructions.

Annex 5 on the language of manuals enforces:

Consumers have easy access to operating instructions at least in their own official Community language, in such a way that they are legible and easy for the consumer to understand.

When it comes to advertisements, there is no language specification but advertisements must not be misleading, which a poorly translated or non-translated advert could be - this is covered in legalities relating to unfair commercial practices. Children for example, are not typically fluent in foreign languages, so information conveyed to them must not be misleading because it is not understandable.

The EU is keen to ensure a balance between linguistic regulations and the free movement of products or services. If too many regulations are applied at the EU level, there may be a conflict with the free movement of products in Europe. So a certain number of regulations are set, but the EU leaves a lot to the member states to specify. More than half of the member states however, have provided additional laws which consider it necessary to inform the consumer in his or her own language. 

A famous court case put France's Toubon Law on the front pages of many newspapers. Passed in August 1994, the labour code Article 122-39-1 states:

Any document containing obligations for the employee or provisions which the employee needs to know for the proper execution of his work shall be drafted in French.

You should therefore check not only the legislation of Europe but also of the specific countries in which you plan to sell your products.

Language use in specific markets

In addition to understanding these legal requirements it would be wise to check the laws pertaining to the communication of information in your industry. Of course, even in cases where there is no specific law, users are still four times more likely to purchase when information is in their mother tongue, so from an economic perspective, it is still worthwhile considering.

If a restaurant owner translated only the starters, or poorly translated the menu, users may go away with some serious food for thought, some possible hospital trips and never come back again. Dishing out content that is thoroughly translated and linguistically clear will give them the taste to come back for more.

The EU website has information on laws relating to different industries (click here). Some industries are more specific than others in terms of the regulations that have been set down, so we will look at a couple of industries as an example.

Manufacturing and machinery

Within manufacturing, linguistic regulations relate particularly to the health and safety aspects of using machinery. In relation to the language aspects of drafting information, the Machinery Directive 98/37/EC, 1.7.2. Warning of residual risks states:
Warnings should preferably use readily understandable pictograms and/or be drawn up in one of the languages of the country in which the machinery is to be used, accompanied, on request, by the languages understood by the operators.

In 1.7.4. on Instructions:

(b) The instructions must be drawn up in one of the Community languages by the manufacturer or his authorised representative established in the Community. On being put into service, all machinery must be accompanied by a translation of the instructions in the language or languages of the country in which the machinery is to be used and by the instructions in the original language. This translation must be done either by the manufacturer or his authorised representative established in the Community or by the person introducing the machinery into the language area in question.

Recipe for linguistic success

Finding information in the bureaucracy of governmental divisions is not an easy task and the EU is no exception. If you are looking at doing business in Europe and want to know which linguistic laws relate to your organization, check the links provided in this article and look into the legal regulations pertaining to language in the relevant directives. As discussed, check the EU legislation relating to your industry, how those vary in the specific countries you intend to sell into and make sure your general communications are clear and not misleading.

Additionally, there are consultancy organizations which specialize in helping companies with such matters and who will be able to guide you in many areas of European legislation.

If ever in doubt however, translate - even if it is not a legal requirement, you will have higher satisfaction rates and repeat business amongst customers, if you speak to the customer in the language closest to their heart - their mother tongue. A closing note of warning though - serving up poorly or partially translated content leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the local consumer, so be sure your dish is not only linguistically legal but also linguistically legitimate and leaves your customers hungry for more.

Source: SDL InternationalGAI


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