language map of africa

Map by Mark Dingemanse. Click on map to see larger version.

This September, Trade Winds, the business conference/trade mission sponsored annually by the U.S. Department of Commerce, will be going to Africa. According to DOC this will be the largest U.S. government-led trade mission to Africa ever. Trade Winds will start on September 15 with a business conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Participants will then have the opportunity to meet with pre-screened firms in some of the following countries: Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania.

Why Africa?

The Trade Winds website states that the decision was prompted by “the rapid growth and opportunities in the region.”

Between 2001 and 2008, Africa was one of the fastest growing regions of the world with an average annual growth rate of 5.6%. Stable macroeconomic conditions, coupled with structural reforms, formed the basis of this growth.

Africa is also the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent making it ripe with opportunities for U.S exporters. In addition, 26 African states form the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement making trade within Africa much easier and more efficient.

Among the reasons for this growth is the expansion of internet access and usage in these countries, especially the introduction of reliable mobile technology. In fact, Congo saw the largest increase in internet speed between 2013 and 2014 in the world, with a growth rate of 146%. Locally grown businesses are jumping to take advantage of a growing middle class with access to the internet. One of the biggest is Jumia, an online retailer that started in Nigeria and has expanded into at least 7 other African countries. Their Kenyan unit actually increased sales by 900% in 2014.

The same developments are causing foreign companies to see opportunities for expansion in the area. So you might expect the demand for translation into African languages is rising. It is, but not as much as you might think.

Demand for Translation

One of the reasons that demand for translation into indigenous African languages hasn’t grown in line with commercial opportunities is that most business people, as well as most of the relatively well-to-do—the people who would be the prime targets for outside business interests—speak another language. In Northern Africa, especially Egypt, Arabic is a lingua franca. Most other countries also have official languages that are remnants of the colonial period, mainly English, French, and Portuguese. Those who speak primarily or only an African tongue are usually outside the major cities or new to the cities.

In fact, the World Bank is worried that many of these languages will simply die out, and that the internet is accelerating this trend. Eighty percent of internet content is in one of 10 languages: English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Arabic, French, Russian, and Korean.

However, this does not mean that there are no significant languages for mass communication outside of Arabic and European languages. According to a UNESCO policy brief, the mass media employ at least 242 African languages, the judicial system uses at least 63 languages, and no fewer than 56 are used in public administration. South Africa, notably, has 10 official languages, including 8 indigenous African languages and Afrikaans, a language descended from Dutch and influenced by English and by local African dialects. Commercial considerations have contributed to a growth in demand for translations in major languages such as Amharic, Hausa, Swahili, and Yoruba.

Other developments have also increased the demand for translation. For one thing, translation is important to further economic development, because this requires an educated population with access to information they can understand. Political problems, such as the struggle with the Boko Haram in Nigeria and surrounding countries, which can have important implications for other parts of the world, have also stoked interest. And health issues such as the Ebola epidemic, which can easily spread globally, have also increased the importance of communication with speakers of native African languages.

The U.S. government has increased its own efforts. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), has launched a program called LORELEI (Low Resource Languages for Emergent Incidents) “to dramatically advance the state of computational linguistics and human language technology to enable rapid, low-cost development of capabilities for low-resource languages,” at least to the extent of providing the ability to identify important terms with political significance. This project has involved translations into lesser-used languages to provide data for analysis. MTM LinguaSoft, for example, handled some translation into Hausa (a language used in large parts of Western and Central Africa) for this project for our long-time client Linguistic Data Consortium.

Additionally, large-scale emigration from Africa to other countries has meant an increased demand for African language translation for communities outside of Africa. We recently translated a flyer for a social service agency in Philadelphia into a long list of languages including African languages such as Swahili (Southeast Africa), Mandingo (Senegal), and Bambara (Mali).

Challenges of Translation

The fact that demand is suddenly increasing has led to a situation where there is a lack of qualified, professional translators for many languages. A Common Sense Advisory report on “The Need for Translation in Africa” noted that: “As demand rises, many unqualified people are jumping in to fill the gaps and offering low prices.” It is difficult for most customers to assess the proficiency of African translators, but picking them by price alone can be a recipe for disaster.

Those experienced professional translators who do exist run up against many other problems in addition to competition from the unqualified. They often lack access to the latest translation tools or to the kinds of termbases and glossaries that professional translators frequently consult to find the right term. They also lack the professional organizations that offer support services, mutual support, and guidelines for quality translations. In fact, a career in translation is not highly valued in many parts of Africa.

These translators often have to face, largely on their own, the question of how to translate terms and ideas for which there is no equivalent in their African language. Remember our earlier post about the problems of translating healthcare terms in Navajo; and the post about Mozilla’s Firefox translation project that ended up using a Fulah phrase that basically means “my cow has fallen over” to indicate a program crash.

Even getting payment for their work can be a problem since they may not have access to common international means of payment such as PayPal.

Finally, some of these languages are mostly spoken or have a large number of speakers who are illiterate. In these cases there may be a need to combine translation with interpretation or voice recordings to make sure that the message actually gets through.

If you need translation into an African language, you are well-advised to use a translation agency like MTM LinguaSoft. We have access to various resources to help us identify translators; we will screen the translators and evaluate their experience; and we can work out payment and other issues that come with international dealings.

Related Posts: