Monday, November 22, 2010

How Does Participation Work in Multi-Lingual Museums?

Spending time in Europe, I'm reminded how complicated it gets when you have to interpret exhibits for a multi-lingual audience. Here in Barcelona, it's standard to see three languages on labels (Catalan, Spanish, English), and in Scandinavia I've seen as many as six. Even in North America, it's becoming typical to see two languages on the walls.

And this leads to a basic question, one I haven't figured out: how do you encourage visitors to participate when they speak different languages? While there are some kinds of participation that are not language-based like making art or voting, most participation is lingual. If your goal is to promote a social experience among visitors, it can be tricky if they can't read or speak the same tongue.

In the most extreme cases, I've talked to folks from museums that are government-mandated to provide all content in multiple languages who say they are unable to invite visitors to make comments because they'd have to translate all of them and simply can't dedicate the resources to do so.

So what are the options? As far as I see, an institution like this could:
  • focus on non-language-based participation. Many fabulous participatory projects--like the Johnny Cash Project or the Art Gallery of Ontario's "In Your Face"--don't require language. This certainly could work well in an art museum, where visitors can make art, or science museums, where they could participate in citizen science projects, without sharing a language. You could even get creative with documentation--photos instead of text, music instead of words--but it's limiting.
  • designate the difference between languages using design. A comment board, for example, could offer blue cards for English speakers, green for Spanish, and so on. The result would be a board that is colorful and makes it easy for people to find comments they can read. This would work best in an institution where there's likely to be a parity of participation among different languages. It would be disappointing to see just one card in "your" color among lots of cards you can't read.
  • invite visitors to translate others' comments if willing to do so. I'm now imagining a card with a place for "Your Comment (English)," "(Spanish)," and so on down the side. You write your comment in the slot you feel comfortable writing in, and other people can fill in the rest of the card if possible. This may sound silly, but there are probably some people who'd be happy to contribute in this way (and may not want to write their own comment). People could also caption each other's videos, but that's more intensive. The challenge here is some kind of vetting to keep people from writing obscene and false translations. I'm not sure if there's more of an impulse toward obscenity in translation than in commenting, but it seems particularly rife because you're distorting another visitor's comment, which isn't nice.
  • use digital interfaces. Machine translation is by no means perfect, but for short two-sentence comments, it's probably good enough. We're likely only a few years from being able to translate text and audio on the fly at a reasonable level of quality. Many museum projects are on long enough leads that this is a good time to seriously investigate digital comment interfaces that incorporate automatic translation.
I'm sure there are people out there with clever ideas about this to share. It's not just a museum issue--it's all over the social web as people maintain global friendships. What have you tried? What have you seen work? What are you experimenting with? What could you imagine?
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