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There are two facets to properly translating health claims on packaging: legal and linguistic. If you’ve gone to market in the US with a health claim on your product package, you’re already well aware of relevant regulations and may already be working with in-country legal experts to determine if your health claims are permitted in your new market. We’ll leave an in-depth legal review up to the lawyers. We’re going to focus here on the linguistic aspects of translating health claims on packaging.

Certain words may seem easy enough to translate, but their connotations in the source and target languages may be different. When translating health claims on packaging, it’s important not just to use a “direct” translation but rather an “equivalent” translation. Equivalence extends beyond dictionary definitions to encompass connotation and popular usage. New Food Magazine has written about the Health Claims Unpacked project in Europe, which investigates, among other things, how consumers respond to health claims on packaging. One example they give is that the word “normal” is often used in approved health claims, but it’s not appropriate for all European audiences. For example, “normal blood pressure” in English is interpreted to mean a blood pressure reading that is neither too high nor too low. In Polish, however, “normal” doesn’t evoke the same idea and may even have a negative connotation.

A collage of various health claims in FrenchIn the specific context of French translation for Canada, the Canadian government publishes guidance around health claims in both English and French. This makes translating any health claims you may have on your product straightforward enough. Then there is the question of how your package looks. If you are selling your product anywhere in Canada other than Quebec, you can leave the health claim in English only. If you plan to sell in Quebec, however, you must translate your entire package into French. Certain information must be bilingual (English/French), and your entire package can be bilingual if you’d like, but there are rules around how bilingual packaging is presented. We’ve written more about this in a post about food packaging in Canada.

When regulatory requirements are in play, you will likely want to see a back translation. This is where a translator who has not seen the original source document translates the translation “back” into the source language. That way any inconsistencies between the source and the translation can be determined. Given the nature of language, it is basically impossible that a back translation will match the original source document 100%. Certain inconsistencies, however, can be easily overlooked. For example, if the source English uses “it’s” and the back translation uses “it is” – those mean the same thing (and depending on the target language, a contraction may not exist or be appropriate). Similarly, if the source English uses “proof” and the back translation uses “evidence,” those are synonyms and the meaning of the text is unchanged. If the source English uses “proof” and the back translation uses “test,” however, this would be an instance where perhaps there was a misunderstanding that needs to be addressed.

A French nutrition labelIt is important that any intentional discrepancies be explained by the translator. The example of “normal” not being used in Polish the same way it is in English, for instance, would need to be explained when the source and the translation seemingly say different things. In France, nutrition labels don’t just say “calories,” like in the US. They list “énergie” or “valeur énergétique,” typically in kJ (kilojoules) and also kcal (kilocalories). This means that “0 calories” may get translated as “sans énergie.” In an instance such as this, it would make the most sense for a back translator to provide a literal translation (“without energy”/”energy free”) but then also provide a note about what terms are regularly used for these concepts in the target market.

Two bottles of iced tea with French labels that read "faible en calories"While we can’t give legal advice, working with a professional language service provider when translating health claims on packaging can make the process of going to your new market much more efficient. Professional translators make use of available resources to verify that the language they’re using is not only accessible but permissible. Just to name a few, there’s the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s guidance that we mentioned earlier, and the European Commission has an EU Register of Health Claims as well as a complete dataset of nutrition and health claims for anyone to reference. Our teams bring a knowledge of the target language and the target market to their translations, and your product!