Common Challenges For Translating African Languages

Common Challenges For Translating African Languages

Africa is the amazing passionate diverse continent that’s completely unique among the 7 continents. However, being unique and distinctive is associated with remarkable challenges in many ways.

There are 6000 languages in the world; 2000 of them are in Africa, spoken by 1.21 billion people. Due to colonization, English, French, Portuguese and German are still dominating.

For example, English is the only official language in ten countries like Kenya, Namibia, and Mauritius and one of the official languages in 24 countries.

As everything is evolving, some languages tend to disappear. According to UNESCO, half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of this century. In Africa, there are 52 languages that have been lost, which means that there isn’t a single person on Earth who can speak this language and the language is no longer known. ǁXegwi, ǀXam, and Seroa are some of the extinct languages in South Africa.

But African governments are now realizing the seriousness of the situation and are working to encourage learning and studying their own languages. A lot of initiatives are done, for example:

  • All primary schools in Zambia will teach the nation’s local languages.
  • The South African government is trying to teach Xhosa in Western Cape’s schools.
  • Gambia will replace English with Kiswahili in its once colonial masters.
  • Primary schools in Ghana are now teaching the Twi, Ga, Fante, and English.

All of these efforts are really appreciated by the African governments and how they are trying to preserve these languages. But the translation and localization industry in Africa still has a lot of challenges that affect the size of the industry and the workflow of the African translators. So what are these challenges?

Challenges of Translating African Languages

The demand for translation and localization of African languages is increasing, and it’s becoming a huge market that we can’t miss out. Linguists and translators are required for many fields such as the government sector, tourism, religious, as well as diplomatic affairs. Also translation is essential for such industries as agriculture, financial, technology and many more. 

International companies started to know the importance of the African continent, so for example China started to invest more in Africa’s infrastructure – such as roads, bridges and railways -, and this is increasing the demand for translation services from Chinese into African languages. In general, the most common requests for translation and interpretation are for English, French,  Arabic, Portuguese, Swahili, and Amharic. But lately, there’s a consistent and high demand for translating indigenous languages. For example, in South Africa, 10 schools in Western Cape started a pilot project to teach Xhosa language to grade 1 students.

We can conclude from this that it’s becoming increasingly important to translate into African languages documents, mobile apps, websites, legal documents and marketing materials, and that the demand for these languages will continue to increase.

But the road is neither paved nor easy! African linguists are facing many challenges if they want to be able to deliver professional translation services. Let’s discuss some of these challenges

  • Lack of Information and Communication Infrastructure 

Unfortunately Africa is suffering from a very poor infrastructure in such areas as electricity, fixed-line telephones, and of course a stable internet connection. This definitely affects how  work, as they don’t have the luxury of using cloud translation platforms like Translation Management System (TMS), Glossaries, and other online tools. You can find some translators who are still using pen and paper to translate. This is make it tough for language service providers to take the risk and work with African translators, as they might miss a deadline or can’t cater to clients’ requirements of using specific software programs and tools.


  • Languages

Africa has around 2000 to 3000 languages and some of them are spoken by millions like Swahili, Hausa, and Arabic. Sometimes due to people’s ignorance of these African languages, you may find a company looking for a South African translation! What?!

South Africa doesn’t have one language but hundreds. This is something that frequently happens across the continent from companies that are working outside the borders of Africa. They don’t have any idea about the country and the diversity of its languages, how, where and when they are used.


  • Education, Qualifications and Training

According to the Borgen Project, 9 million children in Africa can’t attend primary schools and for every 2 children who go to school, one will drop out. While according to UNESCO, literacy in Africa is still below 60%, which means around half of the population still can’t read or write. Even though a lot of efforts are executed to improve the education system and encourage people to attend schools, still there are a lot of challenges, for example:

  • Lack of basic school facilities. 
  • High drop-out rates.
  • High rates of late coming and absenteeism.
  • Low performance of educators
  • Overcrowding in schools and universities.

Consequently, African linguists sometimes fail to deliver high quality translation services and mainly their work volume is not like other linguists can deliver. A normal translator can deliver 3,000 words per day, while an African translator, on average, delivers 1,200 words.

Besides, there are no strong university courses mainly for translation and localization and courses only cover the usual information about French, Portuguese, and English languages.


  • Lack of Documentation and Governance for African Languages

Most African languages are not documented and they were only used orally among African  people. Thus, you will find that the same language has different tonalities, sentence structures and different spellings. 

Also there is no governance for African languages to control each language’s vocab, grammar and structure. For example, the Council for German Orthography is regulating everything related to the German language across all German-speaking countries. Similarly, the Irish language has Foras na Gaeilge. But lately, Nigeria has become one of the African countries that it’s taking effective steps for governing its languages. Then the following bodies were established as a result:

  1. Urhobo Studies Association is regulating the Urhobo language.
  2. Yoruba Academy is regulating the Yoruba language.
  3. The Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture is regulating the Igbo language.

Kenya as well has established Chama cha Kiswahili cha Taifa for regulating the Swahili language translation services and Tanzania has established Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa for the same language.


  • Lack of Translators Representation 

The African continent has only 10 organizations that regulate and supervise the work of translators. For example, The South African Translators’ Institute (SATI), the Kenya Interpreters and Translators Association (KITA), and the Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters (NITI). 

As for translation companies, for example an organization like Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) has no members from the African continent except a few from Egypt and 2 from South Africa. Therefore, these organizations are not enough for representing translators and linguists in 54 countries across the continent. 

So what conclusion should we reach? Yes, translating African languages is both hectic and challenging, but still there is hope! Africa always proves that it’s the land for hope and eventually the African people are trying to make things better as they believe that the translation industry is one of the top factors that can positively impact their economy .

So if you are running a business or willing to open a business in Africa and you are thinking about these challenges, it’s better for you to partner with a professional translation company that will help you to avoid all this hassle. 


AfroLingo – since 2008 – is considered one of the well known translation companies in South Africa. We have developed a reputation for being a reliable and expert translation and interpretation service provider in South Africa. 

As one of the local language providers, we are aware of what linguists are facing, and we believe that empowering them is one of our key strengths. So we managed to build a business hub in South Africa to overcome these challenges. So we managed to achieve the following:

  • Enhance our business hub with generators, alternative internet connections, and up-to-date computers to overcome the lack of infrastructure and the problem of electricity cutoff.
  • Provide online training for our linguists on using the latest translation technologies like CAT Tool, TMS, CMS, and CRMs.
  •  Establish a multicultural community among our talents to share ideas, expertise and knowledge.

So if you are looking for a reliable language service provider and you haven’t yet decided, contafct us now and we will help you choose the best for you.