Tuesday, 9 April 2013

What's the translation industry like in sub-Saharan Africa?

 I think translation is one of the most fascinating industries out there. It's international, it's diplomatic, it brings people together and abolishes frontiers. What's not to like? If you love languages and cultures,  there is a great deal you can learn from this industry.

With Europe, the United States and Canada, Australasia and Latin America working hard to promote their languages and cultures abroad, one is left wondering what they may find in the vast continent of sub-Saharan Africa. I must admit, I did not know much about the translation industry in Africa or its local languages, so I was happy to make the acquaintance of Alfred Mtawali, Can Translators' CEO & Owner, a seasoned translator and linguist himself.

Alfred, who lives in Nairobi, Kenya founded Can Translators in 2007 in an effort to provide high quality language services in local African languages.

Here's the rest of the interview:

Q. Alfred, tell us a few things about yourself and your agency; your studies and your hobbies. How many languages do you speak and what made you join the translation industry?     
A. My name is Alfred Mtawali. I was born and raised on the Coast of Kenya in a town called Kilifi, 45 minutes drive from Mombasa city. I received my BA in Translation Studies from the Pan Africa Christian University in Nairobi. I have a deep love and fascination for languages. I started my translation career as a Bible translator in 1992, immediately after my school graduation. This is something I still do today. I was mainly translating the Bible in my language then.

I speak four languages English, Swahili, Kigiryama and a bit of Lingala. My hobbies are travelling and playing the guitar. I run a band called Mtawalis Band with which I have recorded 4 albums, some of which are being sold online on itunes, emusic, CDBABY, Amazon among other stores. Our music is available on YouTube as well.

Q. What’s the translation industry like in Africa? If we exclude North African countries, where the emphasis is on Arabic, in which African countries, do international clients usually go for translations into African languages? Are languages a booming industry in Africa?    
A. Translation is a booming business in Africa. Since there are many Africans all over the world, there is a great demand for African languages by clients from Europe, America, India, and even China. International clients usually find translation services in Kenya and Tanzania mostly. One thing to note is that there are many translation agencies in Egypt and South Africa and these offer a lot of collaborations with translation agencies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Languages are a booming industry in Africa because most marketing companies want to reach clients in the language of local people. These include mobile phone companies mostly. There are also many African refugees all over the world, therefore most government manuals, in their adopted countries, have to be translated into their native languages as well. These include medical prescriptions etc.

Q. Which languages do you work with on a daily basis? On your site, you mention that CAN Translators offer translations into 20 African languages. Which languages does your agency usually translate from or into?
A. The most common languages my agency works in, on a regular basis, are Swahili and Somali. Once in a while we have demands for other languages like Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, French, Portuguese, Lingala, Maay Maay, and Norwegian.

Q. What’s the role of English in your projects? Is English a ‘lingua franca” for African languages?
A. English is the source language in most of the projects we work on. There is French Speaking Africa and English speaking Africa. However English is more widely used as a lingua franca in most countries, and even those that were French speaking are now beginning to embrace English as the official language of the country. An example is Rwanda.

Q. Are European or Asian languages in demand in Africa?
A. European languages are also in demand, especially in interpreting. We have had requests to do interpreting in Chinese, French and Portuguese. We have also translated a few documents in Norwegian, Italian and German.

Q. Tell us a few things about your clients. What are their needs? Which languages are they usually interested in?
A. Our clients need document translation services mostly, as opposed to oral interpreting. Most clients are collaborating clients, that is, translation agencies which contact us to translate documents for them. There are a few instances where we have had direct requests from companies to translate documents for them. Some of our clients are World Vision, GIZ, etc, and more can be found on our website. Most clients are interested in Somali and Swahili.

Q. Do you work with clients outside of Africa as well?            
A. Yes we work with quite a number of clients outside of Africa, some as far as Paraguay and Europe.

Q. Where are your freelance translators/collaborators based? Do you work with translators who are based outside of Africa?                                                                                                         |
A. Our freelance translators are based all over the world. Most collaborators are in the UK and Egypt.

Q. What’s the average rate for a professional African translator per 1000 words?
A. The average rate is 0.10 USD per word so for 1000 words it is 100 USD, however sometimes those rates can be lower if there is a huge volume of work.

Q. What are the advantages or disadvantages of working as a freelance translator or agency in Africa?
A. The challenges that agencies and translators face revolve around payment. Sometimes projects are given short periods of completion but the payment period can stretch up to 60 days. A second challenge is that most African translators don’t have paypal or moneybookers accounts, hence making a payment can be a difficult and expensive procedure.

The advantages of working as a translation agency in Africa is that translation projects from outside of Africa pay much more than projects from within the continent. For instance a client who gives us a document in Kenya will expect us to charge them a per page rate compared to a per word rate.

Working in Africa gives us an additional advantage as those clients requesting language services in African languages, know that their work is done in the continent where those languages are spoken.

Thank you Alfred!

Alfred Mtawali's agency CAN Translators can be found here

Photo credit: www.skyscrapercity.com  

Natali Lekka is an EN & FR into EL freelance translator and the owner of Worlds of Words. She tweets @worlds_of_words

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