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Lost in translation: Many labels no sense make

There’s no law against confusing—or amusing—wording on many goods

Consumer Reports magazine: January 2013

A dish towel that’s “bibulous” and suitable for “bowels.” A toy helicopter that used wrong can “create the human body or blame damage.” A pair of 6-inch “miedle mose” pliers. Those are just some of the inscrutable package labels readers have sent us recently. Most, but not all, have been on inexpensive products made in China.

Although the Federal Trade Commission cracks down on false claims, and the Food and Drug Administration regulates labels on products under its jurisdiction, there’s no law against mumbo-jumbo on many other goods.

Sometimes directions amuse, but often they confuse. It might be a challenge to operate a flashlight that directs you to “Placethe hand ring with finger and add speed uninterruptedly so as to reach the useeffect” or a bicycle light whose instructions begin, “Twists off the screw, breaks off the card buckle, takes away on the bicycle handle, screws tight the screw to fix to the appropriate position in.” Do you need to heed the warning on a jelly product that says, “The people under 3 years old and more than 60 years old are forbidden to eat alone”?

Exactly who is behind the perplexing prose? “A lot of foreign companies are overly confident in their language abilities,” says Eric Mora, business development manager at Precision Language & Graphics, a translation firm in Schaumburg, Ill. “They might have an employee who speaks some English but isn’t a native speaker, and that can lead to all sorts of blunders, both grammatical and cultural.” Other times, foreign suppliers will try to cut corners with Google Translate or another free online service intended mainly for casual conversation.

As for U.S. retailers that import these products, label quality control is a low priority. “We sell more than 10,000 items,” says Kelly Wu, manager at Dollar Empire in Vernon, Calif. “It’s not possible to check every single letter. I do find a lot of mistakes, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Our advice: Caveat emptor—and use common sense. It’s one thing to spend a few bucks on a lemon juicer with the words “please do not overuse the product so as not to damage it.” But buying tires or a chain saw with the same warning? That could translate into a serious problem.

   

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