It’s all Greek to You?

It’s all Greek to You?

SEPA payment instruments will support all SEPA languages

30 September 09

Share This
Creating a consistent customer experience

The initial default solution to only use the Latin alphabet when making a payment aimed at reducing the complexities involved with the implementation of services across 32 countries. Whereas banks may agree bilaterally or multilaterally to accept payment messages including non-Latin characters, lessons learned since the launch of the Credit Transfer Scheme in January 2008 suggest that in the absence of such agreements the current default solution (use of Latin characters) may adversely affect banks and their customers. This is due to the fact that individual payers - whether corporate entities or consumers - usually provide information in their own language. In the event that a given language contains characters which are not part of the Latin character set it is likely that a payer will include non-Latin characters in a payment instruction despite the fact that  not necessarily all banks support them.

Banks offering services have developed different means to deal with payment messages containing non-Latin character sets: some banks reject such payments which is a rather undesirable situation for both parties to the transaction (payer and biller) alike. Other banks choose to accept the payment yet replace unrecognised characters with blanks or other characters when conveying the payment-related information to the beneficiary (via an account statement, for example). In the latter scenario, this is what happens: a German-speaking payer named Käthe Schröder includes the following information in her Credit Transfer payment instruction benefiting a service provider holding an account with a bank not supporting the German alphabet: "Nächste Überweisung bei Schlüsselübergabe*". On the account statement of the service provider the quote in italics might appear as follows: "Kxthe Schrxder. Nxchste xberweisung bei Schlxsselxbergabe". This lack of common practice regarding the occurrence of non-Latin characters in payment messages introduces inefficiencies and uncertainties for banks and their customers.

It has to be recognised that successful implementation of requires broad acceptance among customers who naturally wish to use their local language when including information with a payment instruction. At the same time, both consumers and corporate customers require certainty that payment-related data will be conveyed end-to-end irrespective of the European language characters they may contain.

As a result of the above observations the Standards Support Group has defined a solution that allows the continued use of local language and special characters by defining a broader character set to be used when making a payment. The goal is to create a consistent customer experience based on common bank practices.

The extended character set solution

The introduction of an extended character set to be used when making payments requires agreement among payment service providers in several areas. In particular, the following two issues have to be resolved:

  1. Technical constraints have so far made it impossible to come up with a single solution to support separate applications, e.g. one supporting the restricted Latin character set only and one supporting an extended character set as agreed within a particular community using a language containing other than the Latin characters. In removing the distinction between transactions containing Latin characters only and those containing other characters, there is an increased expectation to support the full set of characters used in the language of each country. This is technically possible via the use of ISO 20022 message standards. However, mass adoption and alignment of current software and hardware solutions are prerequisites for this solution to materialise.
  2. The issue of storing and / or processing information containing non-local characters in internal systems and eventually printing them on account statements needs to be resolved as existing systems are generally designed to process characters featured in a particular language only.

Ultimately the objective is to support the full character set that includes all languages and other character signs which is supported by the ISO 20022 Standard.

The solution developed by the Standards Support Group consists of a conversion table complemented by a set of principles. The principles allow the original sender of a message, e.g. the payer initiating a Credit Transfer or a biller collecting payment by Direct Debit, to use local language and special characters in specific text fields of the payment message while ensuring that this information is carried through the payment processing chain unchanged. The conversion table allows banks receiving the payment message and their customers to "translate" messages including non-supported local language and special characters in a standardised way.

It should also be noted that the proposed extended character set solution is in line with anti-money laundering regulations and may be extended to global usage.

How to prepare

Banks will need to prepare to receive and forward transactions including the extended character set and to apply the conversion table when needed. In the period leading up to the implementation of the conversion table by all banks, the receiving bank will still be allowed to reject a payment message containing non-Latin characters. To minimise the risk of rejection the sender of the payment message can use the restricted Latin character set or make pre-agreements with his bank on the use of the extended character set.

Banking consultation going on now

In July 2009, the initiated a three-month consultation of banking communities on the proposed extended character set solution. The aim is to publish the agreed conversion table by end 2009 taking into consideration the feedback received during the ongoing consultation. The documents pertaining to the consultation are made available by the Secretariat upon request (e-mail to Banks are encouraged to discuss this proposal with their customer base on their interest and acceptance

In the end, it may be all Latin, Greek or "} ¡ £ é¿ÆÇÜ" - it's still .

Petri Aalto is the Chair of the Standards Support Group ( SSG).


Footnote on article title:

'Its all Greek to me' is an idiom in the English language claiming that a subject is incomprehensible either due to complexity or imprecision.  Its usage may be traced to Shakespeare.  Other languages have similar formulations but usually refer to languages other than Greek, such as Chinese in Sweden and Spanish in Germany.  The title does not imply that Greek characters would in any way be the root of the character set debate.


* Translation: "Next Credit Transfer with key handover".

Your reactions

If you would like to comment on this article, please identify yourself with your first and last name. Your name will appear next to your comment. Email addresses will not be published. Please note that by accessing or contributing to the discussion you agree to abide by the EPC website conditions of use.