Translation and food packaging

The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that UK retailer Tesco mis-translated chocolate powder into Czech. Tesco had translated it as čokoládový prašek (‘chocolate powder’) but the official Czech version of the EU Cocoa and Chocolate Products Directive uses čokoláda v prašku (‘chocolate in powder‘). The Czech authorities prosecuted Tesco and after various appeals and counter-appeals, the case went to the European Court of Justice.

Here are the definitions in question from the English and Czech versions of the Directive:

  • Powdered chocolate, chocolate in powder designate the product consisting of a mixture of cocoa powder and sugars, containing not less than 32 % cocoa powder
  • Čokoláda v prášku je názvem pro výrobek sestávající ze směsi kakaového prášku a cukrů, obsahující nejméně 32 % kakaového prášku

As you can see, the English uses two terms—powdered chocolate and chocolate in powder—but the Czech version uses only čokoláda v prášku (literally: chocolate in powder).

Tesco’s arguments

Tesco argued to the Court that:

  • in EU law, each language version of EU legislation has equal validity.
  • other language versions of this particular legislation use a term that translates literally as chocolate powder or powdered chocolate: the English version uses both powdered chocolate and chocolate in powder, the German version uses Schokoladenpulver and the Polish version uses both proszek czekoladowy and czekolada w proszku. Tesco had prepared its Czech translation from those other versions, not directly from the Czech version.

The Court’s findings

The Court noted that EU legislation stresses the need to inform consumers, in a language that consumers can understand.

Accordingly, the Court ruled that when (as in this case) EU legislation requires particular terms to be used, those terms must be the ones specified in the version of the legislation in a language easily understandable in the member state where the product is sold.

Thus, the terms used to label food sold in the Czech Republic must be the terms specified in the official Czech version of the legislation. The terms must not be just a free translation from other official language versions of the legislation.

Another translation issue

When I read the Court’s judgement, it was available in French but not yet in English. The French version leads to an interesting translation question. I look forward to seeing how the EU translators answer it.

Paragraph 35 says un produit qui consiste en un mélange de cacao en poudre et de sucres contenant au moins 32 % de cacao en poudre doit être désigné, aux fins de l’application de ladite directive, comme du « chocolat en poudre ». Paragraph 36 says something similar.

According to these two paragraphs, it follows from the Directive that a product consisting of a mixture of cocoa powder and sugars, containing not less than 32 % cocoa powder, must be labelled as ‘chocolat en poudre’. Now that statement reflects accurately the Directive’s French version. Similarly, the Czech translation of the judgement uses the official term ‘čokoláda v prášku’ in those paragraphs, and so it reflects accurately the Directive’s Czech version.

But how will the translators render those two paragraphs in English?

  • If they just translate ‘chocolat en poudre’ by ‘chocolate in powder’, the statement will not accurately reflect the Directive’s English version, which also permits the term ‘chocolate powder’.
  • If they translate ‘chocolat en poudre’ by ‘chocolate powder, chocolate in powder’, the English version will appear to be adding something not said in the French version.

References

Judgment of the Court (Fifth Chamber) of 13 January 2022.
Tesco Stores ČR a.s. v Ministerstvo zemědělství.
Request for a preliminary ruling from the Krajský soud v Brně (regional court In Brono).
Case C-881/19.
ECLI identifier: ECLI:EU:C:2022:15
The text of the Court’s Judgement is available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/TXT/?uri=CELEX:62019CJ0881.
I read the French version on 15 February 2022 because the English text was not yet available.

Directive 2000/36/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 June 2000 relating to cocoa and chocolate products intended for human consumption
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A02000L0036-20131118

I first heard about this case from the following report: Tesco defeat at EU’s highest court exposes danger of food labels getting lost in translation (foodnavigator.com)

One comment

  1. I looked today and the English text of the judgement still isn’t available. It is available in all other EU languages, except Irish (Gaelic).
    I hadn’t noticed before that https://eur-lex.europa.eu/homepage.html lets you select up to 3 language versions (if available!) for side by side viewing. Could be handy for investigating translation issues.

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