Not all Translations are Created Equal – What Makes a Quality Museum Translation. PART 1

What does a museum translator do that other types of translators don’t do? 

It’s easy to spot a translation blunder- remember HSBC’s 2009 “Assume Nothing” campaign got translated into “Do Nothing”? Lots of global brands have made them – even presidents have fallen victim to occasional bad translation jobs. However, what many people don’t realise is that blunders like that are only the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible in a bad translation job. Unfortunately, they’re not that easy to spot unless you’re a skilled translator yourself.

What’s more – in the case of museum translation, the only true test of a (translation) job well done is the impact it makes on the receiver. That’s because the job of a museum translator is more about expressing the artist’s intent than the mere translation of words. Or rather, it’s about expressing the exhibit curator’s vision about the artist’s intent.

Museum Translators Speak for the Art Through the Curator’s Vision

Expressing an artist’s meaning or a curator’s vision – not just any type of translator is equipped to handle high-impact, subjective material like art. Museum-goers typically have high expectations of the work that translators do. They expect meaning and vision to bridge the language barrier and come through so that they can come away having had an statue

People listen to audio guides, read exhibition displays, and seek out other interpretive material because they want context for the exhibits they’ve come to see. Not only that, but they want the context of the exhibits to be presented to them in a way that’s relatable to their own experience. It’s no different just because someone happens to speak a different language. Just like everyone else who visits a museum, they too want a meaningful story into which they can place the art that stands before them. In this way, museum translators are storytellers.

Museum Translators are Storytellers

Within a well-told story, a museum-goer finds relatable events that bring live the art they’re viewing.

Take Monet’s Haystacks, for example. A museum visitor can visit Musée d’Orsay in Paris and remark how “pretty” they are. But until they learn what he was attempting to do (capture light and atmosphere on canvas) and what he went through in the process (braving the elements to paint endless iterations of the same scene on different days and in different weather), that’s all they are – just pretty paintings.

And beyond that, there’s what all of that represented for Claude Monet. These paintings depict the countryside- what did that mean for Money and what does it mean for modern-day viewers? Experts, for the most part, concur that Monet viewed the countryside as a retreat from the stresses of daily life. A friend of Monet’s said “These canvases breathe contentment”.

Does “the countryside” trigger the idea of “contentment” in every culture? What about places where the countryside represents “backwardness”, which is often true where the economy is still largely agrarian. In some Asian countries, for example, kids can be heartlessly cruel to a schoolmate who gets sunburned cheeks. Not because it looks funny but because it reminds them of someone from the countryside!


It’s a Multi-Level Merging of Different Contexts

Context, as you know, goes far beyond facts. Context is storytelling – storytelling with an eye toward the listener’s way of seeing the world.

The receiver in every translation moment has a context, too. It’s their cultural background, their experience, their gender, their nationality, and whatever else informs their thought processes. Even their native language and the way meaning gets transcribed in that language contributes to how people understand the things around them.

In short, every receiver has a personal and cultural context from which they interpret the world. It takes a specialised translator to successfully link that context with the context of the art to create high-impact meaning that resonates with the receiver on a deeper level. Only a specialised translator, who understands both of these contexts, will be able to draw from the receiver’s cultural context to spark the imagination.

Finally, it’s this ability to spark the imagination that separates museum translators from their non-specialised peers. Once tapped into, the imagination is what will trigger an emotional response to the art. That, in a nutshell, is what all artists and all curators are seeking. This is what a specialised museum translator has to offer.

gallery visitors