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Different approaches to museum translation

In our last post we discussed whether or not museums should consider translating their content, not only as a way to really engage their current audiences, but also as a strategy to attract new ones. However,  depending on the museum’s objectives, there might be different approaches to museum translation:

What materials should museums translate? Read more about it in our blog!
Photo by Melisa Palferro
A minimal approach to museum translation: maps

The first approach in museum translation is what most museums in the world do. They translate the maps so any visitor will be able to find their way around the galleries and will have access to basic information.

This approach only allows access to basic information, but sadly the content of the galleries will never reach the visitor.

A tourist approach to museum translation: maps and audio guides

The second approach in museum translation is the next step up, and also what most big museums will go for. It allows visitors not only to get around but also to access information about the collections and exhibits.

The downside to it is that visitors normally have to pay for audio guides and many don’t (or can’t). Also, many people will prefer to wander around the galleries as they wish and not follow instructions.

An inclusive approach to museum translation: maps, audio guides and wall texts

Now, this third approach in museum translation is a lot closer to inclusion. If you have many foreign visitors or are located in an area that’s increasingly bilingual —as is the case with many states in America—, then you want your visitors to, at least, have a broad idea of what’s the theme of the gallery or exhibit.

Translating wall text will give them the opportunity to contextualise the objects shown in a space.

All for inclusion: Translating maps, audio guides, wall texts and labels

The last approach to museum translation is what many museums are doing nowadays —i.e. total inclusion through a completely bilingual presentation.

Museums like the San Diego Museum of Art not only provide basic information in Spanish, but they also have their entire wall texts and labels translated, so any Spanish speaker who visits the museum can wander around the galleries and get full access to everything that’s being said.

Isn’t that amazing? It shows a clear willingness to acknowledge and engage their audiences at every level. And I think it is the way to go if that’s the objective the museum has!

*A note on translating labels: As a word of advice, if you are going to translate labels, then translate them 100%! I’ve seen many times clients asking to translate labels, but leave the title or credit in English, doesn’t that defeat the purpose though? I honestly believe it does!

Let’s not forget the web! Translating the museum’s website

Strangely enough, translating their website is not something every museum does but something every museum should do!

In an age where the first thing we is Google a place before we visit, websites are increasingly the place to go for information. Therefore, if you’re investing in museum translation, your website should probably have at least the basic information translated as well.

Some may say: “Would you need to translate everything into every language? That’s insane!” Well, I don’t think so, and in my next post I will be discussing how to choose one or two languages to translate into according to your needs. Stay tuned!

#art #translation #xl8 #ucreatewetranslate

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4 comments on “Different approaches to museum translation”

  1. Hello there,

    I found your articles very interesting. And I thank you for that.
    I do have a question though about the size of texts in translation : how do you manage it? Especially when it comes to museum translation. You’re saying in one of your articles that you want to avoid the feeling of having a hierarchisation, how do you do so ? As translating from English to latin languages such as Spanish, Italian or French involves a considerable expansion of the text.

    Have a nice day,


  2. Hello there,
    I found your articles great and I thank you for that.

    Though, I’ve got one question : you said in one of your articles to avoid hierarchising cultures understand languages. Considering the expansion of the text size in translation, how do you do that, especially when it comes to museum translation where space matters a lot especially for labels ? As latin languages such as French, Spanish or Italian tends to greatly expand when they are translated from English or let’s say Chinese.

    My question is linked to the following table :

    Language Translation Ratio
    Korean 조회 0.8
    English views 1
    Chinese 次檢視 1.2
    Portuguese visualizações 2.6
    French consultations 2.6
    German -mal angesehen 2.8
    Italian visualizzazioni 3

    I hope my point was clear enough and I thank you for your future reply.



  3. Hi Maxime,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you’re enjoying the articles. I don’t recall any mention to hierarchies –not in this article at least– but the way most museums usually solve that is placing labels side by side. It is also possible to translate in a way that avoids unnecessary expansion of texts. Yes, Spanish tends to be longer and that is to a certain extent a necessary result of the translation process. But you can also always choose the shorter translation (when there’s more than one choice, which happens quite a lot) to avoid the Spanish label being way longer than the English. This depends on the space available for labels of course, and that has to be solved in each particular case. However, I would say that yes, placing both labels side by side will avoid the implied idea that one language is more important than the other. Hope that helps!



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