A Story of Storied Translation

International Translation Day takes place annually on 30 September and, since 2005, has served as: “an opportunity to pay tribute to the work of language professionals, which plays an important role in bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation, contributing to development and strengthening world peace and security”. To mark International Translation Day 2021, this guest post from María José Ramos Acevedo, Culture Champions Volunteer Assistant at Manchester Museum, and Rebecca Tipton, Mirela Steel, Yaron Matras and Daniele Viktor Leggio, co-founders of the Manchester City of Languages initiative, explore the concept of ‘storied translation’. Focusing on the Multilingual Museum platform, the authors share how users have experienced and interpreted ‘storied translation’ and reflect on the importance of this method for creating inclusive and open spaces for visitors.

Almost 6 months ago we launched the Multilingual Museum; an online translation platform based on objects from Manchester Museum’s collections. Since then the site has been accessed by individuals of all ages and from many different communities, both in Manchester and beyond. As a lockdown pastime, the Multilingual Museum has prompted users to reflect on culture, heritage, linguistic repertoires, and identity at a time when face-to-face interaction has been restricted and public discourse has regularly reduced people to numbers or cases.

Screenshot of Multilingual Museum platform

The platform was designed to encourage translation with the museum and not for the museum. In other words, it offers a space where users of various languages can voluntarily help to bring objects from the Museum to new audiences, whether working individually or in collaboration with others. All contributions are moderated to ensure compliance with the community rules, but users are free to upload contributions in a range of different formats, from text and audio to visuals and images. Importantly, since the goal is not to produce a single, definitive narrative, multiple translations for a single object may appear side by side, even in the same language.

Language and the process of heritage making

The site’s Guidance notes for Translators encourage a range of approaches from more literal translations to looser texts. This may include, for example, reflections on the objects themselves or on the various language possibilities open to the translator, and from regional dialects to family language repertoires. We have created the concept of ‘storied translation’ to encompass these different approaches and, in particular, to help foreground the interpretive possibilities in participating. The concept highlights translation as dynamic, fluid, imaginative, and necessarily a product of individual agency and creativity. It also embraces the notion of multilingualism as a repertoire of linguistic features, rather than just a juxtaposition of named languages with strict rules and boundaries.

Museum's word square and Manchu headdress on the translation site

Storied translation is underpinned by language being understood as heritage and heritage being understood as a process of meaning making. This more dynamic view of heritage helps individual translators to ‘construct, reconstruct, and negotiate a range of identities and social and cultural values and meanings in the present’ (Laurajane Smith, 2006). On this platform, Storied Translatoin also assumes that users will have variable language proficiency. Translation therefore serves many different functions including but also beyond that of making cultural artefacts accessible to different audiences: it is a medium for learning (about language and culture) through doing, for deepening bonds (e.g. between generations within the same family), for documenting language use, for developing transcultural dialogue about language, and cultural understanding across geographical borders, and beyond the city of Manchester.

Contributors’ experiences

The contributions include translations into Arabic, Chinese, Romani, Tamazigh, Luganda, Romanian, and more, capturing the wide range of languages used in Greater Manchester, the spread of their geographical origins, and their status as national, regional, or minority languages. Our experience to date has shown how the platform has brought families, friends and even work colleagues together to spend time discussing language and culture (museum exhibits) and, through the translation of selected objects on the platform, to reflect on their own backgrounds and knowledge of language(s).

Golden mummy and variable harlequin frog on the translation site

Contributors have described how much they felt valued by having the opportunity to be part of the museum and by having their languages recognised in this way. Some participants saw the translations as being something “fun to do as a family” and a way to show children how to reflect on language. For others, the platform has generated new spin-offs such as teachers at a secondary school who decided to adopt the storied translation activity as part of the curriculum.

Carers at a nursing home have started to use the Multilingual Museum both as a staff development activity and as a way of engaging patients, especially those with dementia:

I also told my colleagues at work because I work in a place with people from everywhere in Europe and from other continents, like Africa. It was quite nice to have a chat about it and then they were like, ‘we’d like to get involved as well’ and in the end it was like a competition between us how to translate, how to say different things in different languages. So, yes, it was a big project for us.

Nursing home staff

Families reported on how engagement with the platform brought together different generations and made children feel proud of their heritage:

It was interesting and fun to do as a family. It was also an opportunity to teach the children how to reflect on our language. And also an opportunity to teach the youngest one more of the language. He was five when we moved here and his language is fading.

Luganda speaker

I collaborated with a friend who was also using the platform with her son. We discussed certain terms, shared activities and the children exchanged drawings and pictures of their dino gardens on WhatsApp’.

Romanian speaker

Speakers of ‘smaller’ (minoritised) languages described how they felt a sense of agency and empowerment designing their own solutions for writing and displaying their language in public. Some even embraced the museum’s inclusivity narrative directly and expressed a sense of co-ownership with the museum as a result of their participation:

We looked at the site together and I wanted my children to experience writing in Romani. I asked my eldest daughter to read the English text and asked her to try and translate on her own first.

Romani speaker
Image and text for Peony and a Romani translation alongside child's photo representing the City Nature Challenge
Storied translation in action: Romani, one of the languages featured on the platform, is seen principally as an oral language; this translation uses a writing system based on Romania spelling that was designed by participants. The translation was shared by a parent who wanted to teach their children about writing in Romani and also to represent Romani in writing for non-Roma users: “Because I am always interested in telling others and helping others find out about my language… I also wanted my children to see that they can use their language outside the home”. Alongside the translation, the photograph shows how one of the children in the family engaged with the translation through their participation in the City Nature Challenge (mentioned in the original description); translating the idea into a reality.

The Museum’s multilingual future

We are aware that some users have found the storied translation mind-set more challenging to adopt than others: some have expressed feeling nervous about their amateur status and others were worried about not being ‘good enough’ to translate for the museum. However, as the site attracts more contributions, capturing the variety of responses and the creative nature of translation, we are confident that people will be inspired to participate and contribute too.

We believe that through the process of translating and exploring objects and culture for their own sake, we will achieve our goal; for participants to translate with the museum. In the future, we hope that the Multilingual Museum will continue to attract new users; that participation, whether for pleasure or learning, will bring people together and create connections between contributors, but also with Manchester Museum.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s