Tag Archives: Swahili

Africa’s Translation Gap

A new Translators Without Borders report says most African nations are in dire need of translation services. Report co-author Nataly Kelly talks about how that might happen, and how translation can save lives and foster democratic values.

For Hillary Clinton’s latest trip to Africa, she probably didn’t need to take along many translators or interpreters. Maybe just a French speaker. Of the nine countries on her itinerary, seven are considered Anglophone and two Francophone.

That, of course, does not tell the whole story—far from it. In one of those Anglophone countries, Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken.

It’s mainly the elite who speak these colonial languages. In Uganda, it’s English, in Senegal, French, in Mozambique, Portuguese. But most people—especially outside the big cities—don’t understand those languages.

That’s a huge problem for aid agencies trying to get the word out about disease prevention. The brochures, leaflets and posters they distribute tend to be written in those colonial languages.

Lori Thicke, who runs Translators Without Borders, told me that she’s visited villages in Africa where you can find a plentiful supply of brochures about AIDS prevention. Many contain technical and sensitive information: how to practise safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are in written in European languages, it’s often the case that that the not a single villager understands them.

Nataly Kelly

I also talked with Nataly Kelly of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory. She co-authored a report for Translators Without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. You can hear our conversation in the podcast. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.

There are signs of change. Some African nations are starting to promote their indigenous languages. There’s a debate in Ghana about replacing English as the official language, or augmenting it, with one or more of the more prominent local languages.

The problem is, none of those local languages is spoken across Ghana. They’re regional, and so adopting one of those as the official language would give the impression of favoring a single linguistic and ethnic group.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages That’s helped with the status of some of the less widely spoken ones, like Ndebele and Venda. It means that some official documents must be published in those languages. That raises their status and has spawned a translation industry—something that barely exists around minority languages elsewhere in Africa.

Many Africans speak two or more languages. In Cameroon, it’s not uncommon to find people who speak four or five languages. That’s led some outsiders to assume that Africa doesn’t have a translation deficit. But it does. Speaking a second language doesn’t automatically make you a translator.

You need training to be able to translate. You also need tools: dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms. And you need to be online to access them.

Translators Without Borders has started a training program for translators in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. They’ve begun with Swahili. It’s the closest Africa has to its own link language, spoken now by an estimated 40 million people.

There’s also a Translators Without Borders project that connects volunteer translators with Wikipedia and local mobile phone operators. The idea is to translate Wikipedia articles on AIDS, malaria and the like into local languages, and then make them accessible on people’s phones.

But it’s slow-going: Translators Without Borders has only a handful of volunteers who know those African languages.



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Nairobi’s Smart Graffiti and Sheng Hip Hop

For the past few months, a group of Kenyan artists have been decorating Nairobi’s street-facing walls. Their series of graffiti-splashed murals makes the case that street art can also be essential political speech.

It’s pretty easy to overlook graffiti as a serious form of speech. It’s often little more than illegal, scatalogical  public nuisance.  But there’s far more than that going on in Nairobi. The images and slogans are overtly political– they’re full of criticism of “arrogant” and “corrupt” elected politicians who mock the “idiot” voters who re-elect them.

There are lists of scandals: “Pyramid schemes…post-election violence…tax evasion.”  And lists of attributes that a political leader should have: “courage…doesn’t buy votes/bribe…ready to declare their wealth and source of wealth.”

The timing is significant. Kenya holds a presidential election next year. And these street artists are clearly worried about corruption and petty tribalism among the candidates, and apathy among the electorate. There’s so much sharp political commentary in the murals that they seem more like satirical magazines than street art. Perhaps that underscores a lack of confidence in Kenya’s mainstream news media. Whether or not that’s the case, these mainly anonymous artists have turned a few corners of Nairobi into colorful hotspots of free speech.

The BBC has a slideshow with more images of the murals.

Also in the podcast this week, Kenyan pop star Juliani, whose tactics somewhat resemble the street artists. Juliani raps about climate change– not a usual subject for hip hop stars . And he does it in a slangy English-Swahili mash-up known as  Sheng. As with the street artists, the message is political,  it’s is aimed at young people, and it sidesteps more conventional forms of delivery.


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