Found in Translation

The Concept

The project began with a concept: I told the translator who was helping me to redesign the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) web site that in order for this site to be successful, there had to be parity between the Chinese and the English versions of the site. Then I laid down the challenge, “I want Chinese and English readers to be unable to tell whether or not the Chinese or the English is the translation. How can we do that?” The answer was simple; in order to reach that level of comprehension and clarity, the information on the site had to be absolutely clear. That was easier said than done. 

HKMM is classified as somewhere between a small and mid-sized museum. The prevailing attitude amongst staff has always been, do it yourself. The museum doesn’t have a lot of surplus money and thus when it comes to translation work it has mainly been done by in-house staff.  None of the staff have been trained in translation and they have had to learn on the job. I must note, I only have the deepest admiration for this because I would not have the first idea on how to do this alone.

Looking in the Mirror

When preparing the launch of the museum’s new web site, I began talking to language professionals in the field. Surprisingly, all my teachers and advisors told me the same thing. They explained that when they read portions of exhibition text or brochures from the museum and they could tell that it was a translation. “With my knowledge of English,” one explained, “I would just read the English and get a better understanding, than trying to read the Chinese.” What was the missing piece to this equation?

As I began to discuss the prepared English text for translation, I began by taking a hard look at what was being said. And through a thorough inner look I discovered the problem was not the Chinese translation, it was the way the English was written. Time and time again I discovered the text full of metaphors and references that had no counterpart in a Chinese culture. Furthermore, I discovered that the English text was written at a very scholarly level, and not for the general public.

These observations became even clearer when I started working with the translator by unraveling each sentence of the text.


So the museum’s historian wrote, “Real time radar shows an even wider view and a video screen captures the Mondrianesque montage of coloured boxes in Kwai-Tsing.” “What does that mean?” the translator asked. I told her that it meant that the historian was trying to be a bit too clever.

I am not opposed to a nice turn of phrase or elevating a conversation but this approach does not work for an audience that may not have any knowledge of early 20th century Western modern art. By evoking Piet Mondrian’s style of painting as a metaphor, the conversation became hopelessly sidetracked by a obscure reference.

So I said, it means the video screens are in a checkerboard pattern. And there was instant understanding.

The lesson that I learned is that clarity is step one. Every sentence needs to be examined to discover if there is any jargon that is out of place. HKMM has a commitment to provide all information to the public in both Chinese and English. And it was only through this examination that the holes were discovered. Translation made this site better than if it had only been in English alone. And in my opinion, the Chinese is even more clear than the English, even though the English came first.


A very special thank you to Denise Chau who has served as my translator and friend during this web site development project.

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