The Audience Is Listening

ngos technology languages UNESCO
Tuesday, 21 February, 2012 - 10:33

South Africa could benefit from investing in the translation of local languages

Have you ever travelled to China? My experience taught me quickly that in order to not get lost I would take the hotel sewing kit with me. That way I could simply point to the name of the hotel on my sewing kit to get the taxi driver to bring me home. I couldn't identify the ideographs, so if you showed me the name I wouldn't recognise it and I certainly couldn't pronounce the name, no matter how hard I tried.  So without my sewing kit I was well and truly lost.

For those who speak a language based on the Latin, English, French, Portuguese alphabet we can often make out words and their meanings, and we can at least pronounce many of the words. We sometimes even think we're quite good at it. But I'm sure none of you are under the illusion that you can actually have a meaningful conversation with anyone when you can just pick out letters and pronounce words badly. For those a little more gifted you learn how to put a phrase together. But asking for directions to the toilet, and greeting someone is not really the cutting edge of diplomatic relations.

Only 8.2 percent of South Africans speak English as a mother tongue, what happens to the 1/3 who can't speak English at all?

Now imagine what life is like for a non-English speaker in South Africa. We live in the illusion that we're an English speaking country; the 2001 census says that only 8.2 percent[1] of us speak English as our mother tongue. We deliver service and print pamphlets in English.  But you might argue that most people can understand English. Our rough estimates are that about 67 percent[2] of South African's can speak English at a reasonable level of proficiency. The numbers get worse the deeper we move into rural and peri-urban areas or take into consideration education, vulnerability and disabilities.  And our numbers are very conservative, the figures are most likely worse.

So a third of South Africans, and even more of the most vulnerable people, are greatly impacted by language. Worse, they are negatively impacted by poor language choices which are made for them by the state and by NGOs working to help them.

This is one of the reasons why United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, celebrates International Mother Language Day on 21 February. By highlighting the importance of Mother Languages UNESCO hopes to raise awareness of the importance of language. By correctly addressing language we have the opportunities to make sure that our programmes in education and health have the greatest possible impact. Research found that mother language education lead to more active students, better marks, better learning of core concepts, more involvement of girl children and higher involvement of parents. If we want Africa to reach its full potential we have to take language seriously.

If we want Africa to reach its full potential we have to take language seriously.

With all these benefits why do people skirt the language issue? Well there are many reasons; politics, lack of will, lack of money or simply a lack of skills. Some believe that a single language leads to unity while recognising other languages will lead to factionalism and tribalism. Others see English as a gateway to international trade. With all the things that the state and NGOs need to do often isn't high on the priority list and with limited funds it doesn't seem like the most obvious place to spend scarce resources.

For NGOs, that want to change lives, not translating is usually a combination of priorities, money and experience.  It is easier not to translate something than to run a project that isn't successful.  Often your English content is serving your existing community extremely well and you couldn't see any value in translating it to isiZulu.

But if you will recognise with me that language is critical, then Translate will spend a little time sharing some of our skills with you to make you better informed about translation.

Eliminating your fear of translation with a little help from Translate
What tools do we need to translate?

A pencil and paper? Yes!

For centuries people have been translating with only a pencil and paper.  But today we have word processors that many people use for translation. The only trouble with a word processor is that it isn't the best tool for translation. But it will do for small irregular translation jobs.

If you are translating a lot you really need to be using a computer assisted translation tool.  These include features such as; easily looking up matching terminology, reusing past translations to speed up the translation and improve accuracy; and hiding formatting so that the translator can focus on your content not your layout.
How do we prepare for translation?

You thought you just gave someone your English document? If that is all you've done in the past then you can change the error of your ways.  Here are some tips:

  • Use proper styles. If you are using manual formatting and not defined word processor styles then stop. These clutter the document and make it harder to translate and harder to correctly transfer your formatting to the new language.
  • Prepare a terminology list. Your organisation and domain use specific terms. This doesn't need to be a long list. A simple list of words, definitions and equivalents in the target language will help keep things consistent across all your translations.
  • Reduce sentence complexity. While it makes you sound erudite it makes it harder to translate.
  • Avoid language specific idioms. “It rained cats and dogs” needs to be idiomatically translated in almost all languages. Save yourself the time and remove those.

Where can I get someone to do the translation?

The first call is a professional translator, preferably one registered and ideally certified by SATI (The South African Translators Institute). SATI registration is one indicator that a person is serious about their craft.

Many organisations use the skills of volunteers, so approach your members and see if someone is willing to volunteer to translate. Your members have the knowledge of your domain.

Internships and students. Translation and language students are always looking for practical experience.  You could use some of your internship positions to host a student translator.

What you must realise is that the less experience someone has the more you need to check and review what they translate. It is also worth remembering that just because someone speaks a language that doesn't make them a good translator.

At Translate we've used people from all of these categories and what has worked for us is to build relationships over time with our translators.  We've found missing skills at all levels and have built processes and experience that helps reduce the risk for us. You too can build those in, they could be as simple as asking your community what the translated document says, or asking a few people to review the text. A few eyeballs will pick up any glaring errors.

With the above simple guidelines you should be able to get a few of your most critical documents and training material translated so that you can start to impact your community more effectively and you can take your written resources and give them wings, impacting people in other language communities.

- Dwayne Bailey is the Director of Translate, a nonprofit focused on technology and information in local languages. They're behind the work to produce spell checkers in local languages, the translation of Firefox into South African languages and efforts to assist people across Africa with language issues.Translate can point you to skilled translators for small volume work and will work with large organisations with larger content translation requirements to put in correct processes and tools to ensure that translation is done effectively.

[1]Down from 8.6 percent in 1996, could it drop even lower for the 2011 census?

[2]English proficiency is very difficult to determine.  Measures of literacy don't measure English skills, and literacy levels themselves are not indicators of proficiency.  Our estimate is based on an urban population of 56 percent (2001 Census) with an estimated urban English proficiency of 80 percent and rural proficiency of 50 percent. Thus 67 percent English proficient.

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