In many African countries, dozens of different languages are spoken by different ethnic groups. And while each country often has a European language as its “official” language, most people don’t even begin to understand it. That presents a problem for aid groups, trying to share information.
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, said 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 practice safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are written in European languages, often not a single villager understands them.
Nataly Kelly, of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory, co-authored a report for Translators Without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.