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Translations for museums, historical sites, and culture trails

Castles in Upper Franconia: Greifenstein, Rotenstein, Haldenstadt, Veilbronn, Leinleiter, Streitberg, Neideck, Weischenfeld, Schlüsselberg, Rabeneck, Plankenfels, Plankenstein, Wadendorf, Sachsendorf, Neuenhaus, Hollfeld, Kainach, Wissentfels, Thurnau, Egloffstein...

A time­less Upper Fran­con­ian land­scape between the UNESCO world her­itage cities Bam­berg and Regens­burg? Not quite: the wide­spread cul­ti­va­tion of maize is a rel­a­tive­ly recent phe­nom­e­non in these climes.

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‑