In Other Words: Developing Bilingual Exhibitions

By Carlos Plaza
From ASTC Dimensions
July/August 2009

Over the course of 10 years, the exhibit team at the Miami Science Museum, Florida, has developed general guidelines and strategies for writing and designing bilingual exhibitions. These guidelines result from our experience producing Spanish-language interpretation for more than 40 bilingual exhibitions, and from much trial and error. Although these guidelines refer to English/Spanish interpretation, the principles can be applied to bilingual exhibitions in other languages.

There is certainly more to be learned, but let’s look at some of the basic issues. Following these strategies can lead to a more accessible and rewarding experience for all visitors.

Both languages are equally important

The same editorial review is necessary if you expect your second language to match the quality of the first. This might seem like a given, but I’ve come across many bilingual labels that prove otherwise. While some visitors will praise your institution for making the effort to provide the text in a second language, less forgiving ones might surmise that you didn’t care enough to do it right.

The right people for the job

A truly qualified translator and a savvy editor make for better text in both languages. The translator’s role is to replicate the meaning and mood of the original text as if it were originally conceived and written in the second language. The editor must review the text for grammatical errors and confirm that the structure and style sound authentic from a native speaker’s point of view. Remember that a proficient speaker of any language is not necessarily a proficient writer or editor, and a proficient translator is not necessarily equipped to write exhibit text.

The translator and editor, whether staff members or proven outside professionals, must be intimately familiar with the exhibit content. Their input is essential at the outset of exhibit development in determining how both languages can most closely mirror each other in terms of voice, tone, humor, and idiomatic expressions.

Interpretation versus translation

Your translator must be ready to search for the correct terms, play with syntax, and interpret. Literal translation is usually not an option, especially when your meaning must be clearly conveyed in as few words as possible. Concise, digestible chunks of information are key to accommodating the second language on exhibit labels and panels. The extra wordsmithing necessary to deal with this constraint often helps to refine and clarify your message and reveals ways to improve upon the original English-language text. This results in text that is more likely to be read by speakers of both languages.

Universal terms and familiar regional variations

Interpretation, as opposed to a more literal translation, begins with identifying the most widely used word or expression for any given English equivalent. Both the translator and editor should be cognizant of the cultural makeup of your visitors. They should use universal terms whenever possible and select the regional variations most familiar to your visitors when necessary.

Common names for living things, objects, and actions in Spanish are often region specific. For example, different countries use different words to refer to a car. Most Spanish speakers are familiar with the terms carro, coche, and auto, but a Cuban accustomed to saying carro would feel odd using coche, just as someone from the United States might feel strange referring to his “apartment” as a “flat.”

It is particularly important to develop English and Spanish text in unison when using idiomatic expressions. For example, it’s important to have thought of appropriate Spanish-language phrases that capture the meaning of headings such as “Fish out of Water” or “Bone Up on Bones.” Moreover, the Spanish equivalent of colloquial expressions can vary by country or region. Spaniards, Mexicans, and Cubans have very different expressions for “That’s cool.” The point is not to shy away from whimsical language or idiomatic expressions, but to think about the text, especially titles and subtitles, at the start of the project.

Layout and design

The graphic design of bilingual text panels and other exhibit components can be just as challenging and rewarding as the text-writing process. The ostensible starting point is determining a word count based on visitor behavior, readability, and available space. Bilingual label copy must be kept short to avoid producing a wallpaper of words. This usually means aiming for 50- or 60-word chunks of text, with panel titles no less than 40 points and body copy around 24 points.

Color schemes, panel dimensions, and other practical considerations should also take the second language into account at the outset of exhibit development. Giving equal weight to both languages avoids the suggestion that one language or culture is more important than the other. Also, the clear separation and consistent placement of the two languages helps visitors quickly identify where to find English or Spanish text throughout the exhibit. Different background colors, text treatments, and creative placement of images can help accomplish these goals and create a label design as aesthetically pleasing as any single-language exhibit.

Of course, this whole endeavor is a dynamic process. Two weeks into a project, the writing team may ask the exhibit production manager for a few more inches of text panel real estate to accommodate longer-than-expected text. The graphic designer may ask the same exhibit production manager for larger panels to accommodate certain graphic elements. The production manager may come back and say that the writers and designers can have an extra two inches, and not the four they requested, because he can’t get a certain material in a given size without going over budget.

This not-so-fictional account highlights the very real give-and-take that results in better exhibit products and visitor experiences. The writing team inevitably returns with yet more concise, effective text, and the designers become ever more creative with the use of color and design, therefore adding to the visual appeal and success of the content.

Ideally, these efforts should be part of a larger museumwide plan to reach and serve your Spanish-speaking and bilingual audiences. A bilingual web site, outreach programs, special events, and partnerships with universities and Spanish-language media outlets will help spread the word—¡Este museo es para todos! (This museum is for everyone!)

Carlos Plaza is exhibit developer and bilingual communications specialist at the Miami Science Museum, Florida.

Writing Guidelines
• Write in the first language and then convey meaning, not literal translation, in the second language.
• Reformulate the text in the first language based on insights gained from interpreting the text in the second language.
• Voice, tone, and style should be the same in both languages.
• Use universal terms whenever possible and the most familiar regional variations when necessary.
• Create concise, digestible chunks of information.
• Determine word count based on visitor behavior, graphic design, and readability.
• Test and modify as necessary.

Design Guidelines
• Develop consistent size, arrangement, and aesthetics for all interpretive text.
• Give equal weight to both languages in terms of font size, headlines, etc.
• Clearly separate the two languages visually. Consider using different colors for the backgrounds and/or text.
• Be consistent with the placement of graphic elements.
• Avoid repeating the same images on one panel.
• Test and modify as necessary.

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