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Museum translation and its advantages

As someone who works very closely to museum professionals, I have always admired how curators can deal with such a lot of exhausting and numerous tasks and still present to us amazing exhibitions. Sometimes, however, one important aspect of curating is kind of forgotten: translation.

There’s no doubt: today’s world is more inclusive than never before in history. Globalization and internet have made this possible. So, in this context, I think it is quite fair to say that museums don’t escape the numerous benefits from translating their content.

But first things first. What is the mission that museums are supposed to accomplish? It is no secret that museums play a role far beyond collecting and preserving artistic and historical artifacts today. Museums are about understanding, connecting, engaging. Making people understand their culture and society, connect with art and their history, and engage with the experience.

The question is: How can a cultural institution accomplish this if they don’t speak their society’s language? Taking into account that about 30% of New York population consists of Spanish-speakers (a significant amount, isn’t it?), it wouldn’t be so realistic to say that presenting exhibits solely in English would be speaking in society’s language. Then, another question comes to my mind: Is your museum actually accomplishing its objectives?

However, having a profit from it is another important issue; it’s not worth denying it, especially considering what a serious issue your budget is. I’ve seen quite a significant amount of people arguing the importance of translating content because “they have done surveys, and they show that people do not expect to see an exhibition in another language, and that’s such an expensive service”. But have you thought about the identity of those answering your survey? If you always ask the same people, then you will always have the same answers. This sounds logical, right? The thing is, maybe you’re only taking into account your existing visitors, but not the prospective ones. What about that person from, let’s say, Puerto Rico who is missing your surveys and doesn’t visit your institution because, even though they’re interested in art, they cannot understand your exhibitions. Of course you will obtain some kind of answers if you ask again and again the same people. So, quoting a colleague of mine, you might want to extend the scope of your museum and reach new and prospective visitors. This will mean a better engagement and a higher number of visitors for you, which also will translate in more earnings to your museum.

Last but not least, I think it is worth to think too about your own context. Many things play a role when it comes to translating your exhibits and marketing yourself among multicultural communities. Budget, museum size, location… That’s definitely something you can’t let aside. If you are curating an exhibition whose budget is rather limited and is located in, let’s say, Alaska, does it really worth it to put the great effort that represents making your exhibit multilingual? Hmm… I don’t think so. But what if you work for a museum in California, where about 15 million Hispanic people reside and may not want to go to your exhibit because they don’t understand a single word of it? Don’t you think the return in investment could be great?

So you have some basic guidelines here to decide whether or not it is convenient to translate your content. However, there’s a lot more to explore when it comes to translation for museums and many other issues to tackle. I will be publishing soon some articles related to museum marketing, curating, and translation that will hopefully help you.

Welcome to my blog and happy reading!



Should museums translate their content? By Melisa Palferro

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

The Challenge of Making US Museums Multilingual, By Julie Schwietert Collazo

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