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Should museums translate their content?

Any discussion about the linguistic needs of institutions like museums should start with one question: What are museums for? Or should we say, Who are museums for?

As a translator, I’ve spent the last few years of my career to translating content into Spanish for museums in the US.

So it’s out there, the need to translate content into Spanish in a country with an estimated 43 million native Spanish speakers and another 11 million with limited competence.

Or is it?

What’s it like in reality…

Because I work in the field, I tend to visit museums’ websites regularly. Well, let me tell you it is striking how many of them—if not most—do not offer their website in any language other than English!

Some people may argue there’s no need for translation because visitors understand English. They have even asked them. They’ve done surveys. Fair enough.

However, how many prospective visitors are being left out by the lack of tools to foster their understanding? How many people avoid visiting a museum because they don’t feel they understand and they are offered no help?

Translation as a tool to attract new audiences

In America, where there are states with a very high number of Spanish speakers, like California, Texas, or New York, it’s still common to find that visitors are not provided with tools to understand, engage and ‘feel at home’ in the museum.

However, they say that successful museums today put the visitor at the very centre of their production: exhibitions are curated thinking of their experience; materials are written to engage them and content is being printed for their understanding.

So, if the visitor is the centre…

Why not write for them? Why not communicate with them in their language?

Making museums multilingual seems like an enormous endeavor, and many may think it’s not worth it. But it doesn’t have to be. Museums should start by asking: Who are our visitors, and who aren’t?

If your visitors are Spanish speakers, then making content accessible in their language shows you value and welcome them!

If among those who aren’t your visitors you find the Spanish speaking community, first you should ask, Would we like to attract these people? And secondly, How can we do so?

Speaking their language might be the key.

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