As an academic translator working from German into English, chiefly in the humanities and social sciences, I have a particular interest in facilitating successful multilingual communication in museums and related learning settings. As well as producing translations for museums, I also translate both research pursued in museums and research on museums, especially contributions to the ongoing dialogue between curators, museum educators and other cultural mediators about the opportunities and limitations of museum communication.
At S Swift Translation, I approach translation projects in museums and similar contexts much as I approach every project, but I pay particular attention to translation requirements (explored in more detail below) that result from the specific position occupied by museums and related learning settings as multifaceted sites of enjoyment and education (delivered in barrier-free form) as well as of study, research and international dialogue.
Sparkling translations for exhibitions and publications
Museums walk a fine line between advancing their own viewpoints and catering to the interests and preferences of their audiences. One of the factors that determines whether the visitor experience is stimulating and enjoyable, or whether museum fatigue sets in all too rapidly, is the language used in the presentation and description of exhibits. Museum texts and translations must be stylistically confident and sound natural even when tackling topics that are complex, difficult or far-removed from daily life. Such skilfully produced texts can engage visitors where heavily didactic writing, overly high-flown prose or a flippantly casual tone might be more likely to enrage them.
As the forms taken by museum communication are as diverse as the museum sector itself, with its remit extending from prehistory into the space age, translators need to make sure they are aware of the context translations are going to be used in. Drawing on their media skills, they can then create texts that match the given reception context and reflect the objectives pursued by exhibition designers. Texts for an audio guide or a listening station need to be translated differently, for example, from texts destined for a wall, a printed catalogue, or a website. Translators need to know how visitors will be discovering collection-specific content: will they, for example, be exploring natural heritage or historical landscapes on foot, attending demonstrations of artisan, proto-industrial or domestic work techniques, or trying techniques out for themselves? Is an exhibition intent on explaining historical connections or illustrating epochal trends, or does it aim to bring historical sites to speak directly to visitors through a combination of tangible evidence which has been preserved, reconstruction and staging?
Knowing exactly how texts will be used also helps translators to meet technical requirements flowing from those uses. Translations of exhibit labels or wall texts must, for example, be concise enough to fit into the space available. As the preparation of exhibitions is a complex undertaking involving many experts with different toolboxes, many different file formats are used and it can be helpful when translators have access to tools (such as, in my case, SDL Trados Studio) that ensure they can handle an extensive range of file formats with ease. This makes it easier for translation work to merge seamlessly into the overall effort of preparing an exhibition as it progresses from initial correspondence and possibly loan agreements on to the design of the exhibition and preparatory work and then to its staging, promotion and critical appraisal. Sometimes translations are required even before deposits become exhibits: the acquisition, conservation and study of evidence from the past spans international borders.
Education, participation and translation
Honouring the educational mandate of an institution begins with a strong commitment to factual accuracy. Dealing with objects or phenomena which may be rare or unique demands a degree of precision from translators which presupposes familiarity with the subject matter. Where parallel texts that could be consulted to discover solutions found by other translators do not exist, translators must advance from dealing with objects in purely linguistic terms (at arm’s length, as it were) to engaging with their fundamental characteristics. Typologies or similar reference works and experts must be consulted to figure out exactly which features distinguish one object or phenomenon from another. Quests of this nature require a framework of orientational knowledge and method awareness along with research skills, persistence, the humility to know when to consult an expert and the drive to leave one’s desk in pursuit of solutions.
Over and above this, what the educational mandate of a museum means depends on the nature of the exhibits and topics covered and the target groups addressed. As sites where tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage is preserved and displayed, museums further participation in heritage and in public discourse on questions relating to the past, present and future. As forums for information and discussion, they are symbols and sites for the playing out of social relations of identity and difference, knowledge and power, and theory and representation. Museums are also learning settings for people in every walk and stage of life, and they foster competences that facilitate an increasingly plural society. They can introduce visitors to the methods of specific disciplines, for example the critical evaluation of sources practiced by historians. Critical historical consciousness ultimately emerges from insights into historical contingency rather than from exhibitions that evoke a sense of inevitability regarding past events: working through source material autonomously can give visitors insights into this contingency and the freedom to appraise history for themselves and to make connections to the present.
Whatever the objectives pursued, language is often at the heart of successful museum communication: it makes topics accessible, raises questions, provokes and opens up new horizons. Used skilfully, it can help visitors to find their own approaches to the material presented and to use and reflect on the museum itself as a store of knowledge and a venue for experiences. Translators need to be sensitive to this process: to translate a text is always to interpret and shape it, and this process is fraught with the risks of over-interpreting, which forces visitors into an intellectual straitjacket and limits their own engagement with objects and topics, and of not interpreting enough, leaving lacunae in understanding that prevent translations from fulfilling their intended purpose. Where exhibition designers have quite deliberately engineered information gaps or incorporated activating components that invite visitors to research, discover or engage with objects independently, translators must leave room for visitors’ creativity and avoid interfering with learning processes. I benefit from my teaching experience when making tricky translation judgement calls in situations like this, but I also seek input from clients and occasionally provide more than one solution and the reasoning behind my choices.
Situations requiring surefootedness from translators can also arise when multiple communicative objectives pursued in an exhibition conflict with one another. At memorial sites, for example, tension can develop between the role of the site as a place of learning and its function as a memorial: visitors who are emotionally affected may not be able to assimilate knowledge or to fully access their powers of analysis. Demonstrating the extent of crimes against humanity at a memorial site could potentially collide with the aim of protecting the dignity of victims. When multiple objectives that clash with one another have been delicately balanced by the makers of an exhibition, it is imperative that translators also bring informed sensitivity to their work. Here, again, I benefit from my prior experiences in education, but am also careful to bring extensive background knowledge to bear on my work and to work in close partnership with my clients.
Making difficult things accessible without a hint of condescension
Differentiated communication in museums contributes to making them barrier-free, and that also applies to the translations that make exhibitions accessible to visitors from abroad. Translators can fine-tune texts to meet the requirements of specific target audiences – from children to pensioners, from low-threshold programmes to guided tours for experts, and from tourists to long-term migrants. Precise and explicit briefings can be very helpful here: translators can, of course, take cues from the content and style of source texts, but not having to derive requirements indirectly in this manner avoids guesswork and is preferable. Curators, museum educators and staff in memorial sites often know their patrons, the international composition of their visitors, and the characteristics of the new visitors they would like to attract in the future; this information is worth sharing.
As a translator working into English, I am often conscious that I may be serving exceptionally heterogeneous audiences: not just English native speakers from various parts of the world, but also people dependent on English as a lingua franca. I avoid idiomatic expressions that are only understood in individual English-speaking countries and do my utmost to make texts accessible to international audiences.
Cost-efficiently delivering exceptional professional services
As a perfectionist, I sometimes spend longer on a sentence or a search for information than can be justified in purely economic terms. But as a thoroughly realistic perfectionist, I am more than aware that public museums are non-profit entities and that private museums are often sustained by a handful of donors or by the dedication of community-based grassroots initiatives. I never lose sight of promised cost ceilings or delivery dates in my quest to maximise translation quality, and I don’t always charge for every hour of my time – I don’t want to blow your budget, but I can’t drop my own quality standards. As a flexible freelancer working with state-of-the-art tools and technology, but without lavish business premises, I can work more cost-effectively than many translation providers without cutting corners on quality.
I look forward to discovering more about your institution and your translation needs. Feel free to contact me using the form below or directly at sarah@s‑swift.de.