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Professional Translators vs. Native Speakers: How your exhibition can be affected by your choices

As a professional translator who works a lot with museums, it was quite surprising at first to see how many curators and museum professionals trusted people who simple are native speakers to translate their exhibitions instead of hiring someone with the professional and academic background.

I understand: We translators go unnoticed a lot. When I say what I do for a living, many people ask “But why not simply using Google Translate?” Well, let me tell you, folks: there IS a huge difference. But we’re going to talk about Google Translate in deeper later. Now let’s get down to business: if you want your bilingual exhibitions to succeed, you don’t want just to have anyone put your content into another language. I mean, you seriously make a great effort with your exhibitions to have someone screw it with a poor translation and therefore creating a quite doubtful reputation among those who are not English-speakers. And still, that’s just what can happen if you hire just any random Spanish-speaking, French-speaking, whatever-speaking person. But… why? Is there so much of a difference? Oh, yeah, there is, and I’m going to explain to you why in this post.

  1. Adaptation (folks with other cultural contexts think differently)

If you have ever befriended a foreign person, then you know people behave and think a bit differently depending on their cultural context. For example, did you know that Hispanic people tend to have a higher degree of intimacy? We Latinos use to act with acquaintances as if we know them from childhood. What does it mean in terms of translating an exhibition? It means that you have to make the text less impersonal and make the reader feel involved, as if you were talking to a friend about an artist’s work or the history of an important figure. And this is just a little example of how different foreign minds work.

The thing is, native speakers don’t necessarily take this into account. We translators studied at college so that we could handle with these issues in satisfactory ways. So we don’t only translate your texts, but also make them attractive to people speaking the target language.

  1. We translators are grammar Nazis… so you can be sure there won’t be spelling or writing mistakes

Being a native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean you master your language. Don’t you see every single day people making horrible spelling mistakes and stuff round there? I’m not lying when I tell you that I have worked with people who are very well prepared in their fields and still are bad as hell at writing. And you know what’s horrible? Misspellings! I mean, seriously, imagine you see a company’s add with mistakes… you’re not buying that product, are you? Well, I’m sure someone from Latin America or Spain who sees mistakes in your exhibitions won’t want to come back to your museum (and won’t recommend it to their friends neither).

  1. Research and terminology

Last but not least, translators do know how to make research, and we also use to specialize at something. We are never happy until we find the exact term. And I know from experience how much you must research when you work for museums. After all, there are art museums, history museums, science museums… I even had to make a lot of research about medicine once for an exhibit about medicine history! But the thing is that terminology can be such a confusing land. A native speaker might be happy with just putting the direct translation that sites like WordReference or Linguee give them. Translators know that’s not enough most times: you most look at other documents about the same topic, see what’s the best way to translate a term while you still convey what the author meant, take into account cultural and historical references that might affect the quality of the text… Yes, being a translator is much more complicated than using Google Translate or putting beautiful words out there.

  1. Bonus: Don’t put someone from your staff who is simply a native speaker to proofread your texts. Hire another linguist instead.

Many museums have someone who’s in charge of proofreading translations. That’s perfect and more than understandable: After all, they need to be sure the job is well done. The problem comes when they just put someone who’s simply a native speaker to do this job. And I have terrible experiences with this. As I said thorough all this article: A native speaker is not necessarily a good translator (or editor). So, if you want to double-check, why don’t you hire a second linguist instead? There are many people out there offering their proofreading services. You have a second opinion on the matter, but from someone who really knows about their business.

So, I hope these points helped you to understand how important it is to hire the right person to translate those exhibitions in which you put so much effort. Remember: The engagement with people from other countries or cultural backgrounds can depend on it, and I want nothing but to see museums succeed, so I hope you make the wisest decision.

Happy reading!




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