Translation as an Art: How to Get Your Work in a Museum

Whether you consider translation an art or not, there are still ways to get your translations into a museum!

Museums offer knowledge but they can also provide entertainment and distraction, especially during hard times like we’re experiencing now. In the past decade or so they have evolved from rather stuffy places to lively multimedia experiences with exhibits on anything from art, photography, and fashion to film, music, and science and technology. The accompanying texts are no longer limited to labels and catalogs, but may also include audio guides and interactive quizzes, and promotional material such as websites and online newsletters.

What I like about translating for museums is the subject variety. Over the years, I’ve translated material related to fashion, photography, gemstones, theater, history, modern art, and even Star Wars. These were all subjects with which I was already more or less familiar, either because I specialize in them or because I was interested in them. Star Wars was the exception, as I had never seen any of the movies, but this was easily remedied by finally watching them. Obviously, as with any translation, you should only accept translations on subjects with which you’re comfortable, but since museums usually aim for a wide audience, most texts aren’t too specialized.

Another thing I like about this type of translation work is how you sometimes discover cultural similarities rather than the cultural differences we translators are used to. When translating an audio guide for a local German museum, for example, I discovered several local customs that sounded very familiar because they are also known in the Netherlands.

Preparation and Research

In an ideal world, the client will provide you with lots of reference material and, once you’ve finished the translation, you can visit the museum to check whether your texts work in the actual setting. Unfortunately, the world usually isn’t that ideal. The reference material is often limited, the quality of the visuals may be so bad they’re barely usable, and the translations often have to be ready before the exhibition is set up. So, even if you live close enough to the museum to actually visit, you probably won’t have an opportunity to do a walk-through to check your translation before an exhibition opens.

How much information you receive also depends on who you’re working for. If you’re working directly for a museum and have access to curators, they’ll usually be able to provide you with all the information you need and answer questions. However, I’ve also done translations for a company that specializes in museum audio tours, and they weren’t always able to send me everything I needed. The same can apply when you’re working via a translation agency.

Regardless of whether you work directly for a museum or via an agency or another company, you should always ask for reference material, such as visuals, previously translated texts on the subject, texts from other exhibitions, information on the target audience, glossaries, and style guides. This will provide you with as much background as possible about the subject of the exhibition and help you determine the appropriate style and register.

Visuals are the most important resources. Most of the time the client will be able to provide visuals, but if not, there are other ways to find them. If you’re translating for an exhibition that’s already open, your first resource, if available, is the museum’s website. If you’re lucky, it will contain detailed photos of the exhibition, sometimes even 360-degree panorama photos or videos that lead you through the exhibition.

If there’s no website, Google Maps can also be a great resource for photos if you’re translating for an existing exhibition or if the exhibition has already been staged somewhere else. Look up the museum and click on Photos. Here you’ll find photos from visitors (and sometimes from the museum itself). These photos are usually not categorized, so you may have to browse a bit if you’re looking for something specific, but they can be incredibly useful. And they tend to be very recent: you’ll often find photos that have been taken just hours earlier.

Types of Texts

The type of texts you need to translate may vary. Some exhibitions only have panel texts and a catalog, while others will also have an audio guide or other multimedia. In some cases, you may be asked to translate the website and other promotional material as well.

Labels: Labels describe the individual items on display, which is why it’s essential to have visuals of these items. One of the first exhibitions I translated all the labels for was a fashion exhibition about Jean Paul Gaultier. The client did have visuals, but they turned out to be tiny thumbnail photos that didn’t show much detail. This made it really hard to translate some of the descriptions, especially since Gaultier is known for using unusual materials and techniques that really have to be seen to be understood.

For example, one dress was described as containing “nail embroidery.” Since I’m not a specialist in embroidery, I wondered whether maybe this was a specific method of embroidery. Luckily for me, the exhibition had previously been on display in several other countries, so I was able to find quite a few photos online. After a bit of online detective work, I found a proper close-up of the dress: it turned out the dress literally had nails embroidered on it! Another description that really had me stumped before I found that all-important visual was a “velvet cassock opening to reveal an icon.” Again, it turned out to be, very literally, a velvet cassock with two “doors” that opened to reveal a religious icon.

If you can’t find any visuals and the client or agency is unable to help, make sure you make a note of any descriptions that you are unsure about so they can be checked by someone who is familiar with the items on display.

Panel Texts: Panel texts tend to be more general and are often used to provide background information about the items on display in a specific room or area. Ideally, they’re concise and easy to read (avoiding long, complicated sentences). Also keep in mind that not all visitors may be familiar with the subject of the exhibition, so avoid specialized language. (The exhibition catalog is usually used for more specialized, in-depth information.) When in doubt, discuss this with the exhibition’s curator to ensure your translation fits in with what they had in mind.

Audio Guides: When translating audio guides, make sure the text will be easy to follow when listened to. This means that you shouldn’t use long and/or complicated sentences. Be careful, however, not to use too many short sentences, as this will make the text sound too “staccato” when read aloud. Once you’ve finished your translation, always read it aloud to check how it sounds. (This is always a good idea for any type of translation!)

Ask for a map of the route that listeners of the audio guide will follow. Instructions in audio guides are usually fairly straightforward (e.g., “turn left,” “take the stairs to the second floor”), but sometimes they can be a bit confusing, especially when the audio guide is for an old building or castle with unusual rooms and passageways. In that case, it helps if you can check out a map to see the exact location of that door or passage visitors will have to go through.

It’s also a good idea to check if the text is going to be used for the audio guide only or whether it will be printed or included in a multimedia guide as well. Audio guides used to be available on special hardware that was only available at the museum, but these days, especially in COVID times, museums are switching more and more to apps that can be downloaded on smartphones. These multimedia apps often also include the text of the audio guide. If this is the case, you should check whether there are any space restrictions for the published version (e.g., for headlines).

Interactive Media: One exhibition I translated offered an interactive quiz to determine your personality. Each room contained a screen with a number of multiple-choice questions that you could answer after scanning a bracelet you received upon entry. At the end of the exhibition, you received your results in an email. The text in this email consisted mainly of all the multiple-choice answers you had selected on the various screens, with a few extra phrases added to create an actual text.

When I translated the questions, I wasn’t aware that the answers were going to be used this way, so when I received the automatically generated email for checking, the text hardly made sense in translation. This was also due to the fact that in English, main sentences and subordinate clauses can have the same word order, which isn’t the case in many other languages (including Dutch, the language I was translating into). So, I ended up having to rephrase all the answers in such a way that they made sense as independent answers, but also in the context of the automatically generated email.

Exhibition Catalogs: Catalogs usually contain a number of articles or essays, plus sections such as a biography/timeline about the artist(s), author biographies, image captions, a list of exhibited works, acknowledgements, and an index. The articles can be quite academic, in-depth texts, which might be challenging if you’re not familiar enough with the subject, so always make sure you’re up for this part of the translation project.

Promotional Texts: Sometimes you may also be asked to translate promotional texts for the exhibition, such as the website and newsletters. For these texts, you may have to use a different, more commercial style designed to attract people to the exhibition.

Tools of the Trade

I know many people don’t see any use for computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools when translating more creative texts, but I’ve found them very useful for numerous museum projects. One example was a project where the museum catalog was basically a copy of all the panel texts in the exhibition, so my CAT tool helped with consistency and saved me a lot of work. Another example was when I was asked to update an audio guide I had translated years before. The client did provide a file with tracked changes, but it was a lot easier to simply use my existing translation memory. And then there are the many times when a client has updated the text after I’ve already started working on it.

Another advantage of using a CAT tool is that I can leverage my years of experience. For example, I can import the various term bases I’ve compiled over the years for appropriate projects. I can also use a concordance search to easily search translation memories from previous projects on similar subjects.

COVID-19 and the Future of Museums

Unfortunately, museums all over the world have had to close during lockdowns and many are struggling. Some smaller museums have even closed permanently. There are also fewer international exhibitions, as travel restrictions make exchanging artworks between international museums more difficult. This may mean less translation work.

On the bright side, continuing professional development has become easier thanks to various online options. Museums are offering online lectures and tours of their current exhibitions, sometimes for free on their YouTube channel and sometimes for a small fee. So, you should use these opportunities to increase your knowledge. Also, please support your favorite museum if you can, because art is important, especially in difficult times like these!

Percy Balemans graduated from the School of Translation and Interpreting in the Netherlands in 1989. After working with a translation agency as an in-house translator for a few years, she served as a technical writer and copywriter, information designer, web editor, and trainer for an information technology company. Translation, however, has always been her real passion. In 2007, she established her own business as a full-time freelance translator, translating from English and German into Dutch, specializing in advertising (transcreation), fashion and beauty, art, and travel and tourism.

2 Responses to "Translation as an Art: How to Get Your Work in a Museum"

  1. Maria Baker says:

    Wonderful article. It makes me want to have museum clients right away! I wonder what would be the best way to market my services to these institutions…

  2. Susana Sherman says:

    I enjoyed reading this article very much. I had the good fortune to work for a while with a local museum on their exhibits and programs for children, and there are so many areas where a translator can contribute, as Percy notes in her article. And it is, indeed, great to see one’s work included as part of the exhibits 🙂

    To Maria I would say, many times these projects are funded by grants from local or national/international foundations. You can reach out to the museums directly, but establishing yourself as a translator with the foundations is also a good way to work on these sorts of projects.

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