What’s at stake when you’re translating something as simple as the phrase “museum shop” from English into Spanish? Discussions like this one—around the nuance of language and interpreting it for a diverse local community—have been at the core of the mission of the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona since 2015. And now, in keeping with that larger goal of tapping new audiences, the museum has debuted a new website, one that is fully bilingual and has been entirely translated by hand.
“Part of the goal was to think about it less as translation and more as interpretation, so that we were providing as equal an experience for visitors as possible in the two languages,” Nikki DeLeon Martin, the museum’s chief marketing and external affairs officer, told ARTnews. “The goal is that speakers of the two predominant languages in our city would truly have equal access to the museum and be able to take advantage of all that we have to offer. This is really just the beginning for us.”
The website is part of a larger, more ambitious goal of becoming a completely bilingual museum, a first for a major art institution in the United States in one of the country’s largest cities, where 31.5 percent of its residents are native Spanish speakers. In doing so, the Phoenix Museum could offer a concrete example for how U.S. museums can reach various communities in their cities who have often not been seen as part of their audience.
The Phoenix Museum first launched its bilingual initiative under its previous director, Amada Cruz, in 2015 with a simple gesture: adding a banner to its lobby that said “welcome” and its Spanish translation, “bienvenidos.” Up until that point, nothing similar had been done at the museum. (At the time, Cruz was criticized for this change by some longtime docents and others in the community.)
“That was the beginning of it,” DeLeon Martin said. “And from there, we dreamed up this idea of: What if had a fully bilingual website?”
The last time the museum’s website was updated was in 2012, for which it commissioned a custom-built one, with its own content management system (CMS). That CMS gave them little freedom to do any major alterations to the site. A new site was on the docket for the museum and new financial support ensured that the Phoenix Museum could effectively reach a larger segment of its existing audience, as well as welcome new people to the museum.
Thanks to a total of $1.29 million in grant money from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and the Steele Foundation to support the initiative, the museum is in the process of translating all its English-language materials—including wall text, maps, and way-finding signs—into Spanish, and has also hired a staff translator and created an internal digital strategy team to its staff. A bilingual website may seem like a small part of this project, but it could be a major step forward—and one that other institutions are likely to follow.
Most international museum websites rely on a website plug-in like Google Translate to automate translation, allowing for users to seamlessly toggle between multiple languages. But the results can often lead to awkward phrasings and mistranslations. The Phoenix Museum instead opted for something more bespoke, with every single component of the site—from exhibition to artwork listings, and even to the buttons that prompt visitors to other pages—translated by humans.
For this undertaking, the Phoenix Museum convened a working group of around a dozen English-Spanish translators from a wide array of Spanish-speaking backgrounds, including Arizonans with Mexican heritage, a Puerto Rican woman who had lived much of her life on the East Coast, and people from Chile and Ecuador. They then sent the translations to an external focus group of about 10 people composed of docents and some who don’t work at the museum to offer feedback. Spanish has numerous dialects, and the goal was to have the non-English pages be as easily understood by as many Spanish speakers as possible.
Throughout the process, there were long discussions over what might seem like the simplest of phrases. At first, the translation for “museum store” was “tienda,” but in Arizona, “tienda” more often means “grocery store,” not a place where catalogues and merchandise is sold. Even phrases as pervasive as “chief curator” became the subject of debate. Should one go with the word “jefe”—a word that translates literally as “chief,” but has a slangy tone for boss and that, in telenovelas, can mean a father figure—or should one go with a different, more formal translation?
Ultimately, the museum landed on “La Boutique del Museo” and “curador principal.” And for its monthly “Senior Coffee Social” they settled on “Cafecito,” an informal term that directly translates to “little cup of coffee,” at the suggestion of what one of the translator’s grandmothers used to describe a chat over of a cup of joe.
“We were concerned about understanding how selecting different words impacted our audiences, because at the end of the day, the most important thing to us was that we made a truly good faith effort to speak in ways that would resonate with our audiences,” DeLeon Martin said.
Key to understanding the translation of the Phoenix Museum’s website into Spanish is that it will continue to evolve, making the institution’s digital presence forever a work in progress. A notice posted in the footer of the Spanish version invite users to offer feedback, to help the museum “better reflect the voice of our community.”
“We have a saying here that our museum brings the world to our city and our city to the world,” DeLeon Martin added. “Part of that is making sure that more people in our city feel welcomed and accepted here.”