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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 devoted the last few years of my career to translating content into Spanish for museums in the US —and all of those end clients are big, important museums.

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?

Because I work in the field, I tend to visit museum sites regularly and it is striking how many of them—if not most of them—do not offer their website in any language other than English.

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

But… how many prospective visitors are being left out by the lack of tools to foster their understanding of what is being presented? How many people avoid visiting a museum because maybe they don’t feel they understand the art and they are offered no help?

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

However, it is said that successful museums today put the visitor at the very center 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 center, 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 themselves: Who are our visitors, and who aren’t?

If your visitors are Spanish speakers, making content accessible in their own 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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