By Mike Hunter, www.betterlanguages.com

Regulations make it necessary to include certain types of information on product labels. In the EU, this includes the presence of ingredients on foodstuffs, precautions for using cosmetics and the avoidance of false claims.

Compliance can be challenging enough in only one language, so extra care must be taken to get it right when translating packaging labels into other languages. Because of the accuracy required, there are certain things you need to know before undertaking a packaging label translation project.

The dangers of automatic packaging translation

The specific requirements of labelling in many countries mean that translation must be a careful, considered process, and must be human authored. Relying on automatic electronic translation services can result in words with completely different meanings from the originals, and even whole sentences that make no sense.

In the EU, pharmaceutical labels must be presented in the official language/s of the country they are marketed in, and there is good reason for this. If patients and consumers are not certain of how to use pharmaceutical products, or the ingredients they contain, the consequences could be disastrous.

Drug labelling is not simply a matter of approximation, though. In the EU, when more than one language is used on pharmaceutical labels, the text in each language must have identical meaning. This calls for a translator who will do more than give literal translations of each word, and who has a fluent and broad understanding of both languages and cultures in addition to the specialist technical vocabulary in both source and target languages.

For this reason, it is important to use a professional native speaking translator, with experience and knowledge of the specialist technical area. While automatic translations carry the risk of causing misunderstandings that could have serious ramifications, especially in the food and drug industries, specialist native translators have the cultural and linguistic experience to know whether or not something makes complete sense.

Automatic translations are also especially risky where idiomatic language is used. Some products are given quirky names or descriptions for marketing purposes, which serve to entice consumers in the original language, but will only cause confusion in speakers of other languages.

As figurative language use is not directly transferrable across language barriers, literal translations can produce some very strange results. For example, KFC’s first translation of their slogan “finger lickin’ good” into Chinese came out as “we’ll eat your fingers off”, and the American Dairy Association’s “Got milk?” inadvertently asked its Spanish-speaking audience if they were lactating.

Localisation, not just translation

Part of producing labels in different languages is appealing to new cultural norms and the process can be just as much about localisation as translation.

Something that is commonly necessary on labels, such as for pharmaceutical products and some foods, is the presence of an expiry date. Using dates on translated labels is not simply a matter of reproducing the original date format within the translated text, however. Instead, date translation involves an element of localisation.

While most European countries present dates in the same way (day, month, year), even countries that speak the same language can use completely different formats. For example, unlike the UK, the US uses a month, day, year format, while all three possible combinations are used in different contexts in Canada. Different countries also use varying symbols to separate date elements, such as dots, forward slashes or hyphens.

Alongside technical differences, localisation also covers broader cultural issues. For example, in some countries it is necessary to make clear whether a consumable product is Halal, or whether it contains alcohol.

Layout is another crucial cultural consideration when translating into certain languages. Artwork on packaging, or the placement of labels on products, may rely on text being in a very specific location. When translating from European languages into Arabic, however, text layout will normally need to presented as a mirror image of the original, due to Arabic being written from right to left.

Product Knowledge

Regulations mean that certain product labels must be completely accurate, as omitted details or misspellings can lead to a lack of information that may pose risk to consumers. In some cases, mistakes that arise from a translator’s lack of familiarity with the product can be fatal.

Those who use pharmaceutical products for the first time rely on instructions for use, and need to be completely sure how much medication to take at what times to avoid overdose. As well as this, food products must display ingredients and allergy information, and just one missing allergen on a packaging label could result in illness or death.

For this reason, it is important to employ a translator with experience of your industry. Names of pharmaceutical ingredients can be long and difficult, and are easy to mistranslate or spell wrongly for those who are not familiar with them. Packaging label translators should recognise small spelling mistakes, as well as being familiar with the conventional layout of drug ingredients lists.

In some instances it is not necessary to translate ingredients, this is true of cosmetics products which are subject to common rules across the EU, for example. Where packaging is for both EU and non-EU countries, this may result in a single set of ingredients for the EU, but separate ingredients lists being translated for none-EU markets.

Packaging labels frequently use industry-specific terms and phrases that do not mean the same thing when taken out of context. A translator who has specialist knowledge of the industry can translate all information specifically in-context for accurate results, even so, do not be surprised if your translation company raises queries about a text to be translated. English as a source language can be very ambiguous, and it is vital that the translators have all the correct information to ensure an appropriate and accurate translation.

When taking your products to the international stage, it is worth investing in a rigorous process of packaging label translation. Translations that are correct, and work well within the new market’s culture, not only appeal more to consumers, but help you to avoid legal issues that arise from non-compliance.