The Law and Languages

by Jennifer O Neill When selling products in Europe, how do we decide into which languages we should translate our user documentation? This is a potentially expensive, yet important, question. In an ideal world, we would translate the documentation into the language of every country in which we sell our products. However, not only could this be prohibitively expensive, it might also be a waste of money and time. Not all products or audiences may require a translated user manual. Yet by not providing the documentation in a language of a country, we might be breaking that country’s laws. In this era of tight budgets and deadlines, it’s important to know how to select which languages are required for our markets. When planning the localisation requirements of our documentation, we should consider the following criteria:
  1. Legally required languages
  2. Legally recommended languages
  3. Commercial decision
Always seek the advice of the company’s legal department to get guidelines specific for your products and markets.

Legally required

What we’re selling will play a deciding role in determining which languages are provided to customers. Medical and life safety products, such as fire alarm systems, have much more demanding legal requirements for translation than products with no such impact. As a life safety product even if we sell only one smoke detector in Iceland, for example, we’d have to translate the user instructions into Icelandic. And the law doesn’t stay still. Recently, the European Union directive for medical devices was updated, requiring software to be now translated. A useful article for information on the legal aspects of localisation is Who is afraid of clinical data requirements? Regulatory information often must be translated. For some European Union (EU) directives, the information provided to end users must translated into the official EU languages. Examples of such directives are those for WEEE and battery disposal. So some regulatory information may need to be provided to users in more languages than the user manual itself. For more information on regulatory issues across many sectors in the European Union, go to the European Commission's industry sectors overview. Several European countries legally require user documentation for any product to be translated into the local language. If selling products in France or Germany, we must translate the software and instructions for use into the local language. The instructions for use can be in print or digital format (for example, PDF, Web, Help…) Further information on the French law can be found in this article about Toubon Law. Russian and Ukrainian laws insist that the end user and installation documentation be translated into Russian for products to be legally sold in these countries. And we also need to be aware if our company has any contractual agreements with customers to provide the product documentation in selected languages.

Legally recommended

Unfortunately, sometimes there can be grey areas surrounding translation requirements for some countries. In such situations, seek the advice from the legal department. Although a country may not legally require the user documentation to be translated, if that country’s market is commercially important to a company, the legal department may decide that user documentation must be translated.

Commercial decision

In this situation, languages are selected for purely for commercial reasons. Product managers select the languages required for software and documentation depending on market demands. We need to know the impact of legal requirements when planning the localisation of documentation. Work closely with the product managers and legal department when selecting the languages required. And develop written guidelines to help all parties in the company know what legal requirements the software and technical documentation must meet in the international marketplace.

One comment

  1. Patrick Wheeler

    Hi Jennifer,

    Great article! I am aware of many of the legal requirements for translation and localisation. However, as regards Germany, you mention that, “If selling products in France or Germany, we must translate the software and instructions for use into the local language”.

    I am familiar with the Toubon law for France, Bill 101 in Quebec, GB18030-2005 in China, but would you know of the piece of legislation that governs the translation of software and documentation for Germany?

    A number of times I have read about this being a requirement, but nobody can show me the actual piece of legislation that states this as a requirement. 🙁



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