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.

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Language Museums Around the World

If you were presented with a short article that had been written by a robot, would you be able to tell? This is just one of the many fascinating ideas you can explore while visiting a new crop of language museums around the world.There are already lots of museums which, by presenting their exhibits in minority languages, take on a secondary role of pulling language to the forefront.

But the following language museums are taking more than a passive role in promoting an interest in language. They actively explore the linguistic concepts that weigh on the minds of today’s movers and shakers. They take these heady concepts and bring them down to a palatable level for museum-goers to digest. And by doing so, they make learning about language absolutely enjoyable. Continue reading “Language Museums Around the World”

Multilingualism in Museums, Part 5

Marketing3 Marketing Terms Modern Museum Translators Need to Know (and Why)

These days, effective translating in museums is about communication, not just translation. In that and many other ways, modern museum translators find themselves borrowing from the world of marketing to engage visitors. 

This is part three in our series on multilingualism in museums. This time, we focus on the forces that drive our translation techniques and how similar they can be to those that drive marketers.

Brush Up on Your Marketing Terms

If you’re at all familiar with modern marketing techniques these days, then you might have heard the terms “user experience”, “hyperlocal”, and “buyer persona”. They’re buzzwords that get bandied about in marketing circles but which might sound a little foreign to museum translators.

That’s a shame since translators need to know about these terms if they’re going to help museums fulfil their mission-based goals. Each term, in its own way, describes an important concept in how to effectively communicate with the people you need to reach. Whether it’s a consumer of shoes online or a consumer of ideas in a museum, the key to reaching both is communication. Marketers know this. Museum translators need to know it, too. Here’s why…

Driving Force: the Mission-Based Role of Communication in Museums

We’re well past the days when museums were considered the “keepers of culture”, or mere storage and preservation halls for the artefacts of history. Nowadays, museum mission statements have been rewritten to incorporate a new agenda: the notion of having a responsibility to serve the public.


How do modern museums fulfil this type of visitor-oriented mission?

  • Outreach
  • Engagement
  • Interdisciplinary exhibits
  • Interactive exhibits
  • And more

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Museum translators play an increasingly important role in helping museums teams reach these and other goals.

Not surprisingly then, the tools they use are remarkably similar to those used by modern digital marketers. That’s because it’s all about communication: how to best communicate with your target audience.

Here are three concepts museum translators (and the museum communication team) can borrow from the field of marketing to reach a diverse population of museum visitors.

1. Buyer Persona

Marketers study “buyer personas”, which are fictional characters representing the ideal customer. It helps them envision their target audience so they can create targeted messaging for the customers they most want to reach.

Translators need to be briefed with several buyer personas so they, too, can envision whom they’re targeting with their translations. For example, there’s the immigrant community located near the museum who might benefit from some outreach programs. The way you word your marketing collateral, your exhibition panels and other translations can greatly affect how well you’re able to engage that particular population. Bring them to life as you create your translations and you’ll do a better job of “speaking their language”.

3. Contextual Marketing

Culturally-sensitive translations can go a long way toward reaching a specific population. Marketers call this idea “contextual marketing”. Translators have a different word:

You’ve heard the term “transcreation“? It’s the notion that translators need to deliver a targeted message to a specific population (sounds a lot like marketing!). Transcreation involves creating a culturally-sensitive message that may or may not be different from the original.

4. Hyperlocal

Girl in museumDigital marketers benefit when they can build a local customer base comprised of people who live or work within walking distance of their client. That pretty much sums up what museums are attempting when they do local outreach to underserved populations. Whether it’s the immigrant population they’d like to bring in for cultural sharing events or it’s the bilingual kids in the local elementary school who’d love to visit the museum for a school trip, your local audience matters just as much as those who are visiting from around the globe.

Making your translations feel local with region-specific references and personalized messaging based on demographics, weather, or geography can help translators reach a hyperlocal audience.


Thinking like a marketer can help align you with museum goals. Rather than just preserving artefacts and educating the privileged few, as they did in the past, museums now see their role vastly expanded to include serving diverse populations and responding to their needs… even competing for their interests(1). We hope these three marketing concepts can help you help your museum clients reach those goals.



When Museum Walls Aren’t Sending the Right (Colour) Message


Museums spend an inordinate amount of resources on choosing colours for their walls. Beyond even the most discerning of home interior decorators, the gallery teams in charge of exhibit wall paint apply an almost scientific approach to their task, sometimes taking weeks to pinpoint the right hue.

They do this, of course, to ensure maximum enjoyment for their visitors. Continue reading “When Museum Walls Aren’t Sending the Right (Colour) Message”

The Multilingual Museum Part 4: In Reaching Out to ‘Citizens’, Whose Language do You Choose?

Language Inclusiveness Should Extend Beyond the Museum Walls – Here’s Why


There’s a reason our oldest museums are built in the classical style. The pillars, the grand entrance steps (think the Met in NYC), the marble entrance ways. These daunting facades, which hearken back to Ancient Greece, were built to remind patrons that within those walls were held the loftiest possessions of a civilised society. Inside, visitors would encounter objects representing the apex of culture. Patrons went there to learn, to observe, to gape in awe.

Continue reading “The Multilingual Museum Part 4: In Reaching Out to ‘Citizens’, Whose Language do You Choose?”

The Multilingual Museum Part 2: Bringing Mobile Technology to the Table

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Amsterdam DNA exhibition – multilingual QR codes

Museum Multilingualism: Bringing Mobile Technology to the Table

Last time we talked about the need for museums to cater to their multilingual visitors. Whether they’re from the surrounding community or they arrive from around the globe while on holiday, these multilingual visitors represent a vital portion of the modern museum-going population.

Continue reading “The Multilingual Museum Part 2: Bringing Mobile Technology to the Table”

The Multilingual Museum: How Museums are Tackling the Objective of Engaging Multilingual Audiences


In this new series, we will be exploring how museums are exploring this exciting new frontier. You’ll read about innovative solutions from around the world, where museums have stepped up and found unique ways to serve their multilingual visitors.

Who are These Multilingual Museum-Goers?

Multilingual museum visitors are both local and global. In cities like London or New York, where the local population has a large number of immigrants and multicultural families, museum staff are seeing a growing multilingual scene unfold before them. Many are taking action to keep their museums viable.

One shining example is the Guggenheim in New York, where they’ve placed top priority on reaching out to multilingual visitors. When museum staff opened up a Twitter discussion on how to achieve success in this area, they were met with enthusiastic participation from other top museums in the NYC region.

Issue Recognised, but Where to Start?

The problem is, however, that while museums may clearly see the need to develop multilingual resources both online and onsite, prioritisation is where things get complicated.

In other words, museum decision-makers want to engage multilingual visitors but they don’t always know where to start. Should they concentrate on preparing better-printed materials for museum visitors? Should they focus on translating their website into more languages? Should they develop community outreach programs targeting immigrants?

Part of the answer lies in the composite makeup of each individual museum’s unique visitor population.

It All Starts with Data

What’s the logical course of action when you don’t know the answer to an important question? Start asking questions yourself. That’s precisely what museums are doing: focusing on the front end of things by surveying their current audience.

The questions they’re asking? What languages do you speak at home? for starters. It’s hard to serve your visitors’ language needs if you don’t know who they are. Only by first collecting hard data on the demographics of the people who visit your museum can you build a truly helpful culture of engagement.

Begin With Dedicated Content

At the very least, museums should be producing dedicated content for their multilingual audiences. That means the following should be available in multiple languages:

  • Museum brochures
  • Exhibit podcasts
  • Flyers, announcements, and advertisements
  • Website

But going beyond translating pamphlets and brochures, museums are looking at ways to engage multilingual visitors on a deeper level.

Queens Museum: Doing it Right

One of the enthusiastic participants in the Guggenheim’s #EduTues discussions on Twitter is Queens Museum. They’re completely dialled into their multilingual community and nowhere is this more evident than in their special programming.

Called the ‘New New Yorkers’ program, it offers free multilingual courses to bilingual New Yorkers 18 and older. Local adult immigrant communities benefit from a variety of media classes like video editing, computer literacy, graphic design, painting, and more. At any given time, there are five different courses going, taught in several different languages that reflect the current needs of the community.

Looking Forward

Multilingual audiences will continue to grow. Plus, if the past is any indication at all, these audiences will also continue to evolve. Change is the new constant and to capture the attention of a constant flow of multilingual visitors, museums will have to work hard to keep pace.

A final note to ponder: many of the solutions will be found by tapping the resources that technology has to offer. Luckily, the ubiquitous-ness of mobile pairs nicely with the issues that museum staff face, making phones the most likely channel for engaging this growing body of visitors.

As you look for solutions in the months to come, don’t forget the power of mobile. Paired with the creativity of dedicated museum staff like yourself, it’s sure to yield great results in engaging your multilingual visitors.

The Serious Limitations of Google Translate in Real Life

Google Translate may make for a passable travel dictionary for simple phrases, but how well can it handle the complexities of real life?

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Everyone loves Google Translate. It now covers over 100 languages and, according to Google, there are over 500 million users. For traveling, it’s a hugely popular app, offering real timetranslation via voice, as well as the ability to snap a photo of a street sign and get an on-the-spot translation quick enough to navigate your way around strange cities like a pro.

But what, exactly, are those 500 million users actually doing with Google Translate? Chances are, not much more than extracting only the simplest of phrases… enough to get around a foreign city but not much else.

Although that’s hardly the end goal for the engineers who work tirelessly on the algorithm that drives the app, it’s pretty much all Google Translate good for at the moment, and here’s why.

Nuances? Complexities? Context? Not There Yet

Take, let’s say, a simple idiom that’s used often in business: “The ball is in your court”. If someone tells you this, it means you have a decision to make, an action to take, a responsibility to fulfill. It’s your move.

Feed it through the Google Translate mill a few times and it becomes:

The ball is in the court. 

Somewhere in its formula, Google removed the meaning of “your” and the whole phrase lost its meaning. Now, this is one of the simplest of idioms, so much so that even a foreigner who’s never heard it before can sort of detect the meaning.

Google Translate, however, seems to revert to mere dictionary-level translation (word-for-word), resulting in the vague phrase: “the ball is in the court”.

If it Can’t Handle Simplest Idiom…

If it butchers even that simple idiom, just imagine what would happen to something like ” In 15th century Florence, lowered eyes signified modesty and obedience in women.”  (from a V&A Museum description of Botticelli’s “Smeralda Bandinelli” painting).

So, as far as how well the app handles the complexities of real life with all its socio-cultural contextualisation, we’re just not there yet. For now, we’ll have to leave the tough stuff to human translators.

Spiky Studs, General Elections and the Complicated Business of Museum Translation

When museums offer ambitious exhibitions steeped in political context, the job of translation gets even more complex than usual.

In the Summer of 2015, the Victoria & Albert Museum ran a provocative exhibition that sought to get people thinking about the role of museums as public spaces. It was lofty and thought-provoking in the ways that only the best museum curators can pull off (read more about that here).

Spikey-StudsCalled “All of This Belongs to You”, the exhibition featured art that reminded visitors of the museum’s place in public life. The notion that museums are for the people – all the people – is a civic-minded ideology that some say the V&A (and others) might have gotten away from in recent decades.

To stir up debate, one piece in the exhibition featured spiky studs – the kind you see in many public spaces these days. They are designed to keep people from sleeping near buildings. Do spiky studs support the philosophy of the V&A’s original founders, which viewed museums as a “schoolroom for everyone”?

The entire exhibition was timed to occur just as the general election would take place. The idea was to stimulate conversations about citizenship, too.

What’s a Museum-Goer’s Prior Knowledge of Exhibitions Like This One?

The curators of this exhibition certainly had big ideas in mind when they put it together.

So imagine a museum translator’s job when it comes to making sure it all gets conveyed properly. Here, more than ever, it’s easy to see how the depth of political and cultural knowledge of visitors matters greatly. It’s also crucial for translators to see such exhibitions from a foreigner’s viewpoint, and to imagine whether the issues are coming across in the right way (or at all!).

Colin Mulberg, who worked for 11 years at the V&A developing new galleries, would agree. He found that prior knowledge of your museum visitors is key, especially when developing active displays.

“Text that focuses on the interests, prior knowledge and learning preferences of target audiences works best.”

-Colin Mulberg, Freelance Museum Consultant

When exhibitions like the one described above come along, it’s a chance for museum translators to show what they’re made of. “All This Belongs to You”, for sure, but it’s the museum translator’s job to know who “You” is.