Can a picture tell a thousand words? Assembling IKEA furniture

Grumblings of an irritable translator

Originally published: Minor edits: 22 June 2014

I like IKEA. My fondness for IKEA however does not extend to going there everyday to eat Swedish meatballs, but rather that I visit one of its stores once or twice a year, because I need something, and I usually end up with more things than I had initially reckoned. I usually go to shops knowing what I want to buy, and as such I am not an impulse or browsing shopper, so IKEA is one of the few that manage to sell me things that I had not thought I needed (and it turns out that I did not need them at all). In any case, I have assembled many pieces of furniture from that ubiquitous blue-and-yellow emporium.

One thing that I find clever and annoying about IKEA furniture is the lack of words in the assembly instructions. They are almost always pictorial. There may be letters and numbers to denote the different parts or different stages of assembly, but they do not form part of the how to instructions. I find it annoying, since it means that there is no work for translators, but I also think it is a good way to reduce costs and time associated with translation. IKEA operates in many countries, and has many product lines, so it is easy to imagine the translation bill mounting high very quickly, if it were to write a full manual in words to accompany its products.

A picture may indeed tell a thousand words, but sometimes, I really don’t know where A goes into. Words – and translators – may not be utterly redundant yet.