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Want to Help Save Lives in Africa? Consider Translation.

By: Vijayalaxmi Hegde (Common Sense Advisory)

06 June 2012

Vijayalaxmi Hegde, Research Associate at Common Sense Advisory, comments on the results of CSA's report on the need for translation in Africa. Translation can provide significant help in all areas of life, from health to human rights.

Africa needs translation for many of the same reasons as any other land would: to create information equality, to hear voices that otherwise may go unheard, and to build bridges between peoples. However, in Africa’s case, the need is more urgent than in many nations. Africa is home to more than 2,000 languages. In places with such extreme linguistic diversity, crucial life-saving information can be lost when translation is lacking.

Common Sense Advisory recently conducted a study of the African translation market on behalf of Translators without Borders. In total, 364 African language translators from 49 countries participated. The resulting report, “The Need for Translation in Africa,” reveals that translation can boost economic development and contribute to better protection of human rights in Africa.

But how much can translation really help? The answer may surprise you. We found that 63.07% of the translators surveyed reported that greater access to translated information could have prevented the loss of life of Africans in their family or circle of friends. That’s right.  More than half our respondents said that translation would have made a major difference, saving the lives of their loved ones.

We also found that translation could help Africa in many other ways, from human rights and political inclusion to emergency response and access to justice.

Consider the following findings:

  • 97.14% of respondents said greater access to translated information would help individuals in Africa understand their legal rights.
  • 95.85% of respondents said greater access to translated information would help protect human rights in Africa.
  • 94.92% of respondents said greater access to translated information would have a positive impact on the collective health of people in Africa.
  • 94.87% of respondents said greater access to translated information would help Africans in times of emergency or natural disasters.
  • 91.96% of respondents said greater access to translated information would help people in Africa contribute to the political process.
  • 88.78% of respondents said greater access to translated information would help prevent international, civil, ethnic, or communal conflict in Africa.

The citizens of African countries are not the only ones who need more translation to happen.  Businesses may benefit too. The language services industry in Africa may also be poised for healthy growth. According to a recent UN report, 10 of the world’s 15 fastest-growing economies are based in Africa; foreign direct investment in Africa reached US$62 billion in 2009, up almost 700% from a decade earlier. The number of middle-class households will increase by half from 2010 to 2020. And, by 2030, the top 18 African cities will have a combined spending power of US$1.3 trillion. All these trends point to an increase in demand for language services in African countries. 

However, Africa faces significant challenges related to resources. While most of our survey respondents had access to internet, they complained about the speed of the connection and its disproportionately high cost. Among translation-related challenges, they listed a lack of work and challenges with linguistic equivalence. One of their greatest hurdles was the lack of online glossaries and dictionaries. These translators also pointed out that they were often vulnerable to exploitation because the profession is not well organized in most countries.  Many African translators also explained they do not have access to a reliable means of money transfer, and that embargoes on their country also limit their ability to make a living from translation work.

Translation and interpretation can often make the difference between empowerment and impoverishment or between illness and health. This is perhaps truer in Africa than anywhere else, given the diversity of languages and the many other disparities that exist in this continent when compared to other parts of the world. Our research team was already fully aware of the lack of translation for African languages. After all, our own research on the global translation market shows that Africa’s share of the market is far smaller than what it should be when compared to gross domestic product (GDP) and other economic indicators.

What surprised us the most from this research was that translators drew such a direct correlation between some of the societal challenges they face and the lack of translation they experience. We believe that this information has important implications for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), global health professionals, and anyone who cares about human rights. How can you help? Spread the word and share the report, available for free download, with everyone and anyone who might be able to make a difference.

Vijayalaxmi Hegde is a research associate at independent market research firm Common Sense Advisory. Her primary focus areas are e-learning localization, multilingual search, and emerging markets.She can be reached at [email protected].