Translating “African”

The 21st of May marks World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. This auspicious date is dedicated to celebrating the bounteous wealth of cultures all over the world and commemorating the importance of intercultural dialogue in achieving and maintaining world peace and sustainable development. First conceived in May 2002, this day continues striving to enhance the potential of culture to improve the livelihoods of people all over the world.

For this year’s World Day for Cultural Diversity for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, Folio has decided to look at our home continent and the ever-pervasive question of how to translate “African”. Contrary to popular belief (read: Hollywood’s characterisation), rather than being a single homogenous landmass, Africa is a vast continent of 30 million square km (over three times the size of the USA) consisting of 54 richly diverse countries. These nations are further divided into countless tribes, cultures, and ethnicities, with well over 3,000 distinct languages spoken across the Motherland’s boundless plains. This means that roughly one in every four global languages are spoken in Africa. It is thus understandable to be somewhat bewildered at the prospect of translation from English to “African” or from “African” to English.

Arabic is the most widely spoken language in Africa, boasting over 150 million native speakers – a whopping 62% of all Arabic speakers worldwide. There are even more French-speaking people in Africa than in France. However, nationalities should certainly not always be equated with languages, as translating into “Nigerian” can mean any one of over 500 languages, not only Hausa, Yoruba, English, and Igbo (Ibo). While English is an official language in around two dozen African countries, only about 6.5 million African people are native English speakers compared to the 700 million non-native English speakers living throughout the continent. In South Africa, translating from English to “African” could mean Afrikaans. In fact, we often receive “English to Africans” translation requests from international clients. But the requirement could also be for an English to Setswana translator. The phrase “translating into African” is further complicated by the identity politics regarding what it means to be an African – a question with no straightforward answer.

While 21 May is indeed a day to celebrate the cultural diversity around the globe, Africa deserves recognition for its rich cultural heritage and diversity. Furthermore, as Africa’s 2nd biggest Language Service Provider, Folio has the privilege of translating Africa to the world, thus facilitating intercultural dialogue all over the continent and abroad. This is not limited to written texts either, as Folio provides interpreting, audio transcription and translation, and voice over services into and from over 70 African languages.

At present Google Translate only supports 13 African languages with ten more in the process of being added to the platform. While this may seem insignificant in the light of the over 3,000 languages spoken on the continent, it is important to acknowledge the progress, especially when many of these languages do not have writing systems and when Google has the potential to process these languages using multimedia tools. While recognising the progress, however, it is also necessary to acknowledge the shortcomings – and the subsequent need for the human element.

Google Translate for African languages possesses a concerningly small corpus for contextual reference and this puts the target translations at risk of shortcomings, even so-called “easy” translations. These pitfalls can be avoided, however, through the guidance of experienced mother-tongue linguists. The texts we receive for translation are very often directions for use, instructions, or warnings and in cases such as these, the potential consequences of inaccurate translation or even mistranslation are too great a risk. Native speakers, with contextual and linguistic knowledge, have a nuanced understanding of how to accurately convey information to their people. Africa should not be seen as a caricature. Don’t risk approaching a translator for an African language with the generalised idea that all people throughout the continent are the same, or speak the same language.