Tips For Developing Multi-Language Labels – Part 2


Find Part 1 here.

Part 2: When You’re Ready to Write

(1) Identify Language Form(s)

Once you’ve established your target languages and begun connecting with those communities, you need to identify the appropriate language forms. No language is neutral or only has one pan-global form. So will it be British or American English? High German or Upper Franconian? The form of a language can be a broad or specific as necessary for your audience.

Keep in mind that you may not be the best person to determine which language forms are appropriate. If you goal is to use language to connect with specific communities, take your language form cues from those communities.

(2) Use Native Speakers

After you’ve identified languages and language forms, you need people who can write – correctly – in those forms. Trust me, Google Translate isn’t going to cut it. Ideally, look for a native speaker who also has a background in museums or the content of the exhibit. Otherwise, look for a native speaker with demonstrated skill as a writer.

And don’t be afraid to “test drive” the new language. A museum I work with is currently prototyping French and Turkish resources. The potential authors all submitted sample texts and representatives from the local French and Turkish communities evaluated them. This helped the museum ensure that they were including the best version of the language they could.

Can you use people who are fluent in a language, even if they’re not native speakers? If you have no other options, absolutely. But a native speaker who grew up both in the language and the culture is still best. They’re the ones who’ll really know how something could – and should – be said.

Note: Don’t forget that your native speakers don’t necessarily have to be local. It’s great if they are, but this is work that can be done remotely.

(3) Don’t Translate

Often, translating text directly doesn’t work. Variations in the logical flows and structures of languages can require different paths to get from A to B. Phrases, idioms, and even certain concrete ideas may not translate well, or even at all. But translation isn’t what you want. What you want are labels that capture the same spirit, passion, and emotion, regardless of the language they’re written in.

Multi-language labels don’t have to be identical in what they present, as long as the big idea and main points are covered. My German colleagues are often surprised at the style and tone of the English resources I create, because of how different they are from the German counterparts. But just as the German style might not be that appealing for English-speaking audiences, the English style isn’t what most German-speaking audiences want to read. Your audiences aren’t identical, and your text shouldn’t be, either.

(4) Don’t Simplify The Language(s)

It’s an unintentional (I hope) but unfortunate pattern that when we address someone who doesn’t speak our primary language, we sometimes alter our speaking and writing patterns and “dumb things down.” If it’s your goal to simplify the language in your museum – great – do it for everyone. But don’t write full, complex text in one language and then much simpler text in another.

(5) Edit, Edit, Edit

This is true for all label writing, but mistakes in other languages are even harder to catch. Have multiple native speakers proofread the text for spelling, punctuation, grammar, and flow. And if someone spots a mistake, fix it! Keeping errors in your labels tells visitors that those languages and, by extension the people who speak them, aren’t a priority to the museum. I once spotted several errors on an exhibit panel and mentioned it to the front-desk staff. I was told that they knew about the errors, but weren’t going to correct them until it was time to redo the label. It’s been almost two years and the errors are still there. Definitely not good form.   

(6) Have a Point Person for the Language

In my experience, other-language resources sometimes get lost in the shuffle of all the moving pieces you need to keep track of when developing an exhibit. We don’t do it on purpose, but when text is in a language that you can’t contribute to or comment on directly, it’s easier to forget about it. Having someone who’s responsible for inclusion of another language – even if they’re not the person who is writing the labels – helps make sure that everything that needs to get done, does.

Stay tuned for Part 3

What suggestions do you have for creating resources in other languages?

2 thoughts on “Tips For Developing Multi-Language Labels – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Exhibit Inspiration: Polar Night | Museums Askew

  2. Pingback: Tips for Developing Multi-Language Labels: Part 3 | Museums Askew

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