Translating audio guides

May 17th at 12:58am

Audio guide scripts are an example of those relatively uncommon texts which are written to be spoken. The key thing to remember then is that we are writing for listeners, not for readers. This may sound obvious, but as translators, we are so used to writing for readers that we often forget about certain aspects which are crucial to the success of the finished product. Below is a list of what I feel are the most important things to remember when translating audio guides.

1. Make sure location information comes first in the sentence

This is a crucial – we need to remember that we to need to orientate the visitor in space first – help them find the object which will be talked about and only then start describing it. If the listener is frantically trying to locate the object in question, he or she will be unable to focus on listening to the audio guide, and this is likely to leave them lost and probably frustrated.

2. Use simple and clear style with a logical flow of information

Since the audience will not read the text, but listen to it, it is essential that it is written in a clear and easily understandable style – the audience will not have an opportunity to re-read a sentence or consult a dictionary if they don’t catch the meaning the first time round. Once a sentence is uttered, it is gone and the only information the visitor is left with is whatever he or she managed to remember. It is therefore crucial that sentences are structured in a clear way, the style is not convoluted and the information flows in a logical, linear way.

3. Use short sentences and avoid complex or inverted syntax

A related issue is avoiding complex sentences and inverted syntax. These might be a more sophisticated and elegant way of writing, but they are definitely more difficult to understand when we are listening to them as opposed to reading them. When translating audio guide scripts, it is generally better to use short sentences and simple syntax.

Be careful, however: the sentences need to be short, but we still need to make sure they are cohesive and coherent – that they are clearly linked with each other and that the causal, temporal or any other relation between them is obvious. That relation needs to be expressed by means of lexis or grammar and not punctuation since punctuation is something we see, not hear. We will see inverted commas in a written text, but we will not notice them in an audio guide we are listening to, because there is no way the voice artist can signal their use by means of intonation. So, depending on the meaning, an appropriate expression should be used instead, for example “so called”. Dashes are easier to signal with intonation (they are expressed by a short pause), but it is still better and safer to use lexical means instead, especially that the environment in which the visitor will listen to the guide may be noisy, so he or she might not notice the pause. 

4. Use units of measurement, currencies etc. that are immediately familiar to your visitors

This is generally true of any “standard” translation and localisation, but it is especially important in the case of audio guides. Again, this is because the listener will not have the opportunity to quickly convert miles to kilometres for example and as a result, the impact of that piece of information will to a large extent be lost on them, because the listener will be unable to determine what order of magnitude is being referred to exactly.

Having said that, we should not be too precise when providing height, width, depth and weight measurements by providing numbers accurate to several decimal places. Such precise data can make a lot of sense when written out on the wall label or in a catalogue, but we can hardly assimilate them if we only hear them. It is best to reduce dates and numerical data to essentials.

5. Use glosses to explain culture-specific words and concepts

As with any other type of text, your target language audience may not share the knowledge of your source language audience, especially when it comes to cultural references (and of course there are a lot of these in tourism-related texts). There will be numerous mentions of things the target language reader might be unfamiliar with and these need to be explained – in the briefest possible way so as not to disrupt the flow and readability of the text (again – the audience will not have an easy opportunity to listen to the information again, so it needs to be provided in a clear and instantly understandable way). Footnotes won’t work of course; notes in brackets are probably not a good idea either (as per point 3 above, we don't really hear brackets), so the best approach will be to incorporate the explanation into the body of the sentence, in a logical and attractive way. If adding the explanation within the same sentence makes that sentence too convoluted, you can add it in a separate one – remembering of course that you need to keep to the timing limit provided by the client. In some circumstances you can also omit a certain piece of information if it is not essential for your target audience: if it will be more disruptive than enriching the visitor’s experience, you can probably just remove it. But as a general rule, the strategy of omission is to be used sparingly and is best checking with the client first.

6. Add pronunciation tips

This might not be a formal requirement, but it is a good practice – we don’t know who is going to do the recording and whether that person knows foreign languages, so by adding tips on how to pronounce difficult names, we are helping the voice artist out.

7. Read the finished text out loud (ideally to an audience)

After you have translated and edited your text, read aloud what you have written. It is a good practice with any translation – being a great way to polish the style, edit out any repetition you have not noticed before, improve readability etc. However, while it is not strictly necessary in standard translation, it is an absolute must in audio guide translation. Your text will be read out loud and recorded, so you need to help make that process as smooth as possible. If your tongue gets twisted while reading a sentence, try to rephrase that part. Simplify or divide the sentences which are most challenging to read aloud, rephrase instances of alliteration, pay particular attention to bits of text that are tricky to pronounce because of a cluster of difficult sounds, etc. Remember: if you stumble reading aloud your own text, it’s quite likely that the voice artist will stumble, too.

A very useful thing to do is to read your text to an audience, if you can, especially if you have a version addressed to children. This way you can test drive it – see how your audience responds to what they hear. Do they follow the story easily? Do they understand what they hear? Are they bored, do they find it difficult to focus? And – above all – are they entertained? Remember: your audience came to the museum or tourist attraction to escape, explore, have fun and learn something new. They are most likely on holiday or have a day off and want to relax, so that this fun, entertaining aspect is an important thing to keep in mind. It should have already been taken care of in the source language, but you need to make sure that it is also conveyed in your target language – of course in a way which is culturally appropriate and which respects the conventions your target reader expects and is familiar and comfortable with.

Good luck and enjoy the process – audio guide scripts are quite a challenging, but very exciting and entertaining field. If there is anything you would like to add or comment on, drop me a line on social media or by using the "Contact me" option below!

Article List