The challenge of translation in Africa

Technologically outdated techniques

Worldwide there is a major shift within the translation sector towards automation, i.e. using computer software to speed up translations and create memory banks, glossaries and editing tools. Upon a recent visit to a major centre of language/translation in a West African country, I discovered students were still using pen and paper; they weren’t even using Microsoft Word. Translators are still working within the analogue age which makes it tough for larger language service providers (LSPs) to work with African translators.

Recent adoption of scripts and written forms

Many of Africa’s languages were primarily oral and have only started being converted into written form in recent memory. This has had major consequences for what is considered right or wrong in a language. Different spellings, sentence structures etc. are common. One only has to look at Somali as an example. The language adopted a Latin script in the 1970s and made strides towards standardisation. However, the troubles Somalia has faced has never allowed this to be realised.

No language governance

Very few African languages have any sort of governance which controls its form, grammar and vocabulary. French is overseen by L’Académie française which set the parameters in terms of what is correct French and what is not. Similarly, Turkish has the Türk Dil Kurumu. Is there such a thing for Kiswahili, Wolof or Lingala? As a result, who can a translator turn to when looking for correct forms?

TIA and poor professionalism

“TIA” is a phrase made famous by the movie Blood Diamond. This is Africa. Things work a little differently on the continent and if you are not aware of and prepared for this, things can go horribly wrong. These challenges are wrongly attributed to a lack of professionalism. However, many of these issues come down to things like cultural differences, power supply problems or making assumptions on what is expected when it comes to quality, formatting, deadlines, etc. It is important to understand local conditions, environments and cultures and not jump into the TIA mindset.

Lack of understanding by outsiders

“We need a Nigerian translation.” Unfortunately many of the issues faced by professional translators come down to an absolute ignorance of the languages and where they are spoken. Anyone who knows Nigeria knows there is no one language – there are hundreds. This story is repeated across the continent where outsiders make assumptions and pay no attention to the diversity of languages, and where, how or why they should be used.

So what can we conclude? Well, yes it is a challenge but let’s remember that we are talking about one of the most creative, innovative and resourceful places on earth. These issues will eventually be met, problems solved and the industry will flourish. In the meantime however, when dealing with translation in Africa, go in with eyes wide open, otherwise you could be pulling your hair out.

Neil Payne started his professional life as an English language teacher before moving into translation. Inspiring visits over the past five years to South Africa, Mozambique, The Gambia and Ghana led to the launch of, which specialises in African language services for mainly European companies looking to the continent.