Blog Bike Europe: Lost in Translation

By Rutger Oldenhuis LLM

Michael Jackson is famous for many things, not least because of his misheard lyrics. Even native speakers have trouble understanding what he is actually singing and his version of “Come on!” is just inimitable: “Shamone!”. When I drove back from the Eurobike show early September, I noticed the sign I always see when driving across Germany: ‘80 bei Nässe’ (80 when raining). Only this time I wondered: what if foreigners don’t understand what that means? What if they just continue pushing their car to its limit when it starts raining?

As weird as the combination of these examples may seem, what they have in common is ‘language’. In Michael Jackson’s case, you can just continue listening, even if you don’t have a clue what he is singing. You may even not listen to him at all if you don’t like his music. But if you continue driving 200 km/h on a road that gets wet, you put yourself and your fellow drivers at risk.

Necessity of including all languages

I often get the question if all of the official EU languages are necessary for product information, packaging, labelling and manuals. The typical lawyer answer would be: it depends. In general, “the manufacturer, importer and distributor have the obligation to ensure that the product is accompanied by instructions in a language which can be easily understood by consumers and other end-users, as determined by the Member State concerned. It is for each economic operator which makes available the product in a Member State, to ensure that all the required languages are available”.

For many product categories, specific language requirements may apply for labels, packaging and instructions. Examples are the Machinery and REACH Directives and the Textile Regulation. For high-risk products, the minimum requirement is usually the official language of the EU member state where the products are marketed.

Risks of missed information

Another and – I admit – rather unconventional way of checking which languages are needed: ask yourself whether a ‘Michael Jackson’ or a ‘80 bei Nässe’ situation applies. Would it be important for your customer to understand how to install, use, service or maintain your product? Are there any risks to be considered if they missed any of such information? Als ik nu ineens doorga in het Nederlands, oder auf Deutsch, ou en français, или на по-рядко срещан език като българския? Do you think it may be important for consumers and even professional bicycle mechanics to receive such information in their own language?

In France, they made it pretty easy to answer that question. Based on the French ‘Toubon Law’, “in the designation, offer, presentation, instructions for use, description of the scope and conditions of warranty of a good, product or service, as well as in invoices and receipts, the use of the French language is mandatory.” This is typically interpreted broadly and even includes information on websites as well. Exceptions apply to trademarks and foreign words that are commonly accepted, like ‘t-shirt’ or ‘jeans’.

Jos Speedboat

At home, my brothers and I had our own way of dealing with Michael Jackson’s gibberish. Just for fun, we changed “Just beat it” to “Jos Speedboat” (Jos is a Dutch first name). This was a long time ago and you can image how totally flabbergasted I was when in 2005 a novel written by Dutch author Tommy Wieringa came out, called ‘Joe Speedboat’. What are the odds? A must-read by the way and translated in the official languages of the countries where it was marketed.