The challenge of translation in Africa

Did you know the translation industry is said to be worth something in the region of US$35bn per year? Language is big business. Within Africa, traditionally much of the work done within this field was in English, French, Portuguese and Arabic. However, things are changing. Indigenous languages are on the up and this is changing the dynamics of translation on the continent, above all, increasing demand for professional translations.

Within the past few months, we have seen numerous examples of local language promotion.

In The Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh declared that the country will no longer use the language of its colonial masters – English. The East African Legislative Assembly has stated it wishes to see Kiswahili become the lingua franca of the East African Community. In Zambia, the government recently passed a new rule stating that primary school children have to be instructed in the country’s local languages. Similarly in South Africa, 10 Western Cape schools have agreed to participate in a pilot project by the South African government to teach the Xhosa language to their pupils in grade 1.

Why this is happening is a discussion for another day, but one can conclude that the native languages of Africa are gaining more and more importance. Whether it’s websites, apps, movie subtitles, legal evidence or marketing materials, the demand for African languages is rapidly increasing, and will only continue.

However, there are many challenges to delivering professional translations into/from many of the continent’s languages. First-hand experience has taught those who understand the region that you can’t always approach translation in the same way you may in Europe, North America or Asia.

Here are some reasons why…

Previous low status of native languages

It is only recently that native languages seem to have been acknowledged as ‘worthy’. Previous compartmentalisation saw these mother tongues as for the village or recounting stories of old. Their place in the modern world was seen as minimal by those in power. This has had real knock-on consequences for language development.

Lack of representation for translators

Although the continent does have a few bodies that oversee the translation sector in their nations, this is certainly not the norm. The South African Translators’ Institute (SATI) and the Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters (NITI) are examples of organisations developing skills and helping translators professionally. Excluding these, Africa only has eight other similar bodies – that’s a total of 10 from 55 nations.

Qualifications and training need improvement

Although the continent does have university courses specific to translation, overall it is still underdeveloped. These courses are primarily aimed at equipping students with translation knowledge surrounding the usual suspects of English, French and Portuguese. On top of this, the texts they tend to translate in their education do not reflect the reality of life as a translator. However, things are starting to change with the appearance of languages such as Chinese, Arabic, Turkish and Spanish in some places. The skills graduates acquire in courses leave much to be desired and need improvement.