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House of Seven Gables museum now offers multilingual tours

By Jesse Roman
Salem News / September 11, 2011

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SALEM - There are few gables in Italy, and so it is not surprising that the Italian language lacks a word for them. That is a problem if you are trying to translate the House of the Seven Gables walking tour into Italian.

But who better to tackle those issues than Salem State University students and faculty?

The House of the Seven Gables officials figured as much when they decided to create translations of their tour so that foreign visitors could listen in their native tongues rather than read about the famous Salem house on outdated plastic cards. By enlisting the university, the hope was that the project could be mutually beneficial.

Elizabeth Blood, chairwoman of the Foreign Language Department at Salem State University, loved the idea. Blood found a few students and professors willing to donate their time to translate the English script used to train new tour guides into audio recordings in Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and French. German and Spanish audio translations were done in-house at the museum of the house, which helped inspire Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, “The House of the Seven Gables.’’

“It was a pretty big investment of time for our students and faculty, but it was great for the students to get some experience,’’ Blood said. “We finished in a couple of months.’’

All translations can be tricky because there can be more than one way to say something. The tour also has historical and technical terminology that makes the task particularly difficult.

“You have to do a little bit of research on it and look into the different possibilities,’’ Blood said. “Sometimes there were words we didn’t know in English, like the name of the style of paneling in the neocolonial era. You have to look those up in English before you look them up in French.’’

Italian-language students worked with an Italian professor on their translation because “a professional translation really requires you to be truly fluent,’’ which the students are not yet, Blood said.

The French and Portuguese translations were written and recorded by students and faculty who are native speakers.

Like the other translations, the recordings were then sent to a company in Canada to be placed on listening wands.

The House of the Seven Gables received 10 of the wands through a grant from Mass Humanities, and each one has enough space for complete tours in 10 languages. Wand users only have to punch in the number of the room they are in and put their the speaker to their ear to get an explanation of what they are looking at.

The museum received its new wands a few weeks ago and they have already been put to use.

“It’s been an incredible success,’’ said Amy Waywell, director of visitor services and marketing at the Gables. “The majority who have used the wands have been French, but we had some Italians there just this morning that used them.’’

French is the most common non-English language of visitors, followed by German, Waywell said. Italians and Brazilians are coming with increasing regularity, however, thanks to a push from the state’s tourism and marketing department.

The next translation project could be Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, - a task Salem State will probably be asked to undertake as well, she said.