Artemy Lebedev

§ 82. Section illuminated by a frosted light bulb

February 10, 2002

Multilingualism is a separate big problem a designer and an editor are facing. With modern product distribution schemes, one packaging is made for 20 different countries to save money. As the probability that people living in all of the 20 countries speak one language tends to zero, packaging has to bear markings in all 20 languages at the same time.

Solutions to this problem vary. And all of them are no-go.

Sometimes a product is made without any markings (or with English ones), and has a manual translated into a variety of languages in the box. As a rule, nobody looks into the table of contents, thumbing through the manual instead until words take on a familiar look.

Sometimes a manual is not needed. All the producer has to do is write on the box about what’s inside. And then the box is covered with writings in all languages. This often causes a silly situation: sometimes words are spelled the same in different languages. The producer repeats the same word like a moron again and again and no one can tell what’s the language it’s written in.

Sometimes an appropriate language is indicated before words. But there arises another problem: how is the English language to be indicated? EN, US, UK, GB are the examples you may come across. Which of these is to be looked for takes some guesswork at the start.

Sometimes a language is indicated as the flag of the country where this language is commonly used. But there are some problems here, too. For one, what about English? What flag does it have—British, American or perhaps that of the UN?

And what are you supposed to do with countries where several languages are spoken?

This problem has taken its full toll on Europe: once the unification has taken place, everything should be clear to anyone. Even banknotes now have words written in two languages: in Latin letters (lucky fellas—all had it the same way) and in Greek (imagine a designer cursing Greece at that point!).

But the elegance of the euro money does not project to the rest of life. Here’s how the energy consumption class table is depicted on products sold in Europe:

Here a designer we don’t know squeezed in different endings of the word “energy” to let people in 15 countries read it.

This is an example of an especially sophisticated way of victimizing consumers. By the way, the image is emblazoned on the box of a General Electric light bulb available in any supermarket. Since Russian standards don’t require that the energy consumption class be indicated, no attempts were made to add some Russian to the marking. On the other side there’s the word “frosted” written in 19 languages, though.

Hence the rule: don’t mix languages. There should be one language per semantic field. Page layouts with a number of columns, each with a different language, should be avoided. Business cards in two languages look disgusting. Never compose a page with half of paragraphs in one language and the other half—in another.

If a product needs a manual, the best solution would be one language—one manual. At websites, use language switches.

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