The Challenges of Translating for African Audiences

The Challenges of Translating for African Audiences

No other continent is as proud, passionate and diverse as Africa.

But The Dark Continent also brings distinctive challenges too. This is particularly apparent in the translation business, worth an estimated £35 billion dollars (£20.8 billion) worldwide every year.

Things have changed rapidly there. It has traditionally been a simple case of working with colonial languages. These were mainly confined to French, Portuguese, English plus Arabic. But the rise of indigenous languages – several of which were not even  considered “worthy” – has altered the playing field.

This is especially challenging when you’re on a continent with so many languages that they cannot even be officially quantified, although some experts put the figure as over 3,000.

Now, African governments are encouraging the revival of mother tongues – and not exclusively confined to villages or for re-telling local folklore.

For example:

  • South African ministers are urging more schools to teach Xhosa as a language in the classrooms of the Western Cape.
  • Zambia’s leaders have declared that all primary schoolchildren must learn the nation’s local tongues.
  • Gambia has ruled that it should scrap the English of its once colonial masters in favour of Kiswahili.

This means that professional translators are in demand more and more as the trend gathers pace.

But the Africa-centric challenges means that professional translation delivery cannot be handled in the same way as it has in North America, Asia or Europe.

So what are the challenges of translation in Africa?

Cultural differences, attitudes and rules

It has been said that ‘they do things differently in Africa’. You may come unstuck if you don’t go in with an open mind. Deadlines might appear to the western mind to be more relaxed. There may be power supply challenges too, while a lack of language governance doesn’t help. Hardly any African languages enjoy this. This means that translators have no official guidance when seeking the right terms. L’Académie française is the template for France’s language rules. The likes of Igbo and Kiswahili have no such thing.

Lack of prior knowledge

Again, never make assumptions. Do your homework. Several African countries have not one language but hundreds. Nigeria, for example, has more than 500. It can be easy to fall into the trap of not paying heed to the individual language diversities and the places they are used.

Scant representation, qualification or training

Only 10 of Africa’s 55 countries have bodies that supervise their professional translation industry and help develop skill sets. The continent also suffers from underdeveloped translation-specific education. Texts that students have to translate in courses don’t mirror real-life translating.

Behind the technological times

Translation expert Neil Payne gives an illuminating account of a continent still marooned in the age of analogue in his blog piece for How We Made it in Africa: Insight into Business in Africa.

He tells how he arrived in West Africa to find students still using pens and paper with no Microsoft Word in sight, bucking the trend towards automation in the translation industry.

This makes it hard for bigger language service firms to liaise with the continent’s translators.

No written records

Amazingly, several African languages are still not translated into the written word. This is because they were originally passed orally down generations. This has seen massive ramifications for what’s deemed wrong or right in a specific language.

So, what’s the future?

Only optimism can bring a satisfactory conclusion. Technology is spreading its helpful hand across the continent, while the arrival of Turkish, Spanish and Chinese in some places will spur the further need for and investment in translation services and training. Africa is too proud, passionate and human to allow this opportunity for its diverse indigenous languages to pass through its grasp.

Written by Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf is Head of Digital at TranslateMedia. He has an interest in how technology can help businesses achieve their marketing objectives. He's been working in digital marketing and web development since 2001 across a wide range of industries and clients.

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