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.


Brits View Museums as Keepers of the Truth… for Everyone

Museums, if nothing else, are institutions of engagement, learning, and truth. But to fulfil those aims and engage everyone, they must be able to attract the attention of a multilingual crowd.

What is the purpose of a museum? If you’re like most Brits, you believe that museums play an active role in the sharing of knowledge throughout society. You may also feel that museums are guardians of the truth since they can be trusted to present all sides of a story.

18679129_10154358971896831_393543859_n_400x300Museums Hold Heavy Responsibilities

Those perceptions are from a 2013 study by Britain Thinks. After surveying members of the public about their perception of the roles of museums in society, the researchers from Britain Thinks also discovered Brits hold a more favourable impression of museums than just a generation ago.

One reason we’ve come to hold our museums in such high regard is because over the past generation, museums have stepped up to the plate in terms of actively seeking engagement of all visitors, both domestic and foreign.

No longer viewed as stuffy warehouses filled with dusty objects, they’re now considered to be active players in modern society. They reach out to all visitors, they educate, they facilitate development of individuals, and they promote happiness.

We love our museums, too. The study revealed that museums are more trusted than government or the media. As such, they are viewed as keepers of the truth, preservers of heritage, and shapers of the future.

Museums have some pretty lofty standards to uphold!

We Live in a Multilingual Society

To uphold those standards, and to truly share knowledge with everyone, it’s essential that museums present their material in more than just one language. As stated in the Britain Thinks study:

“Museums are about education for everyone in society equally”

Museums simply can’t fulfil our expectations without the presence of multilingual material throughout their museums (and in their marketing collateral). Increasingly, as museums seek to attract more foreign visitors, and as society in general becomes more pluralistic, museum directors must consider the needs of speakers of other languages.

“To succeed in the 21st century, a museum needs to be responsive to its audience and align its programs to the audience’s needs, rather than sit in a conference room and hypothesize about what the visitor needs,”

~Lisa Abia-Smith, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

Of course, most museums do seek to attract more visitors, and increasingly so from foreign countries. Marketing efforts that cater to foreigners have, for the most part, found a very warm reception among foreigners who, by the way, simply love to visit British museums, it turns out.

How One Museum Thrives by Understanding the Needs of Visitors

The National Museum of Wales has tapped into all these sentiments, and discovered that museums can be huge drivers of tourism. By presenting marketing materials and museum collateral in multiple languages, they not only uphold the standards today’s Brits expect from their museums, they also managed a significant uptick in overseas visits.

As reported in The Guardian this past March, Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales has experienced a 26 percent increase in visits from overseas tourists in just three years.

How did they do it?

Part of their strategy was to actively engage a wider circle of visitors through their marketing campaign. One of the elements of their marketing campaign was tapping into foreign tourists’ desires to understand British history and culture.

That’s where translation came in.

How Translation Made Foreign Tourists Happy

As noted in the Guardian article, the head of marketing for National Museum Wales’ 7 museums catered to foreign tourists by relying on art and museum translation services to bring their exhibits alive for speakers of language other than English.

First, they translated their website pages into French, Chinese, Spanish, and German. That included the pages with material about the permanent collections of the museums.

Secondly, after discovering that tourists are huge consumers of printed materials, they distributed brochures at more points of engagement, where tourists are likely to find them: motorway services and tourist information centres, for example.

Third, catering to the Chinese tourist market, they created a series of videos with Chinese captions. The videos featured highlights of the National Museum Cardiff, and are also available on their Chinese web pages.

These 3 translation-related efforts, combined with a few other marketing initiatives (outdoor advertising, for example), were what led to their 26% increase in foreign visitors.


National Museum Wales seems to have found success in the crossroads of fulfilling domestic expectations of our modern museums and attracting more foreign visitors who crave knowledge about our history and culture.

For museum translators, it’s an exciting direction, and we can be proud to be part of fulfilling the mission of today’s museums, and helping them to thrive and serve the public.

The Year a President Made Love to Poland [and other translation gaffes]

U.S. President Jimmy Carter learned the hard way: some things are best left to seasoned professionals.

American President Jimmy Carter was newly sworn in when he traveled to Poland to deliver a foreign policy speech… one that would go down in history, it turns out. When President Carter talked about his “desires for the Polish people”, the words that issued forth in Polish actually came out as “my lusts for the Polish people”.


Here’s What the this World Leader Learned

Incredibly, there are even more examples like this just from that one speech (one really unfortunate translation error involves him telling the Polish people we would be happy to grasp their private parts!).

But we’re not here to laugh or criticize.

Instead, let this serve as a lesson in how to make sure you’re conveying the right message when it comes to communicating across cultures. President Carter certainly learned, and as a result, actually did more to elevate the position of presidential translator than anyone before or since.

By his second term in office, he was bringing in translators in the early stages of speech writing, rather than leaving them out until the end, when they often found themselves doing their jobs by the seat of their pants. Now, translators became an integral part of the speech writing process, ensuring cultural sensitivity and effectiveness of the words the President spoke.

From then on, translators began to play a strategic role in shaping the words presidents delivered to foreign audiences.


Museum Translators Have it Even Tougher Than Poor Mr. Seymour

That presidential interpreter’s name was Mr. Seymour, and although his career may have taken a nose dive after that fateful Poland trip, he actually did a favour for translators and interpreters… good ones, that is.

You see, there are varying levels of translation services. Almost anyone with a knack for language and/or a few years of formal study can convey a simple message from one language to another (“Where’s the train station?”). And computer software that translates words between languages is common these days, too.

But when it comes to delivering an important message with a deeper, more complex political message, cultural context is everything, as Mr. Seymour helped President Carter realize. Only translators (or interpreters, in Seymour’s case) who’ve mastered a thorough, contextual knowledge of the target language can truly deliver a message with the right socio-cultural undertones.

It’s the same for museum translation. In fact, museum translators have even more to grapple with, since they have the extra layer of meaning that’s implicit in any art piece. Think about it: explaining art is difficult enough in your own language!

The lesson? If you’re working on translation of material that has any importance, whether it’s political or cultural, it pays to have it done by a professional who’s well-versed in how cultural context is everything when it comes to translation services.


  • Top 10 Embarrassing Diplomatic Moments. Time Magazine. Retrieved 8/8/2016 from,28804,1880208_1880218_1880227,00.html