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Catch the Wave:

Translation and the Rising Economic Tide in Africa

(Originally published August 2012)


The buzz over translating into African languages as a means of global market expansion has reached an all time high. The BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India, and China got on board last year by officially adding an “S” for South Africa to its acronym. Now, according to the latest UN economic report, 10 of the 15 fastest growing economies are based in Africa. Foreign direct investment in Africa is up by nearly 700% from the previous decade. In addition, it is predicted that by 2020, the number of middle-class households in Africa will double and by 2030, the top 18 African cities will have a combined spending power of US$1.3 trillion.


Considering translation for African countries can, however, seem quite daunting. The questions and potential issues abound. Isn’t English the primary language for business in many of these countries? Aren’t there thousands of African languages? Which markets and languages should one choose? And, what about character display and font issues? Here is some information to help shed some light on some of these issues.


Which African economies are among the fastest growing and largest? Although there is some conflicting data and information, the following African economies stand out as some of the fastest growing: Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana, Zambia, and Nigeria. In addition, some of the largest economies in Africa to date include: South Africa, Algeria, Morocco, Angola, Sudan, Tunisia, and Kenya.


Are African economies really in good shape just because they are among the fastest growing? While African economies are some of the fastest growing in the world, other indicators such as levels of poverty, unemployment, and hunger are still very high and, of course, need to be factored into the equation when considering the overall long-term growth and stability of both Africa and the global economy. For additional information and perspectives on economic growth and development in Africa, visit this World Bank blog.


What kinds of companies are doing business in Africa?  Although a lot of economic growth in Africa is based on natural resources, such as oil, diamonds and gold,  the number and types of businesses in Africa are steadily increasing and diversifying. The growing number of U.S. companies in Africa include such household names as Caterpillar, General Electric, Google, and Harley Davidson. Communicating and appealing to African markets in their preferred local languages can often be the key to success as Lori Thicke points out in her Multilingual article on Google’s localization strategy entitled “Innovating in local languages for Africa.”


What are some of the more widely used languages in Africa? With more than 2,000 languages spoken across Africa, these are among the most common: Amharic, Arabic, Berber, Igbo, Hausa, Oromo, Swahili, and Yoruba. For some of the previously mentioned largest and fastest growing economies, widely spoken languages include: Amharic for Ethiopia, Swahili for Tanzania and Kenya; Hausa and Yoruba for Nigeria, and Berber languages and Arabic for Algeria.Click here for a list of languages in specific African countries or visit the Ethnologue website, a fabulous resource on languages spoken around the world.


Aren’t English, French, and Portuguese commonly used for business in Africa? While it is true that global languages like English, French, and Portuguese are widely used in Africa, most people still prefer to communicate and access information in their local languages, as emphasized in Thicke’s article featuring an interview with David Gikunda, Google’s African localization program manager.


With 100+ African languages spoken by a million or more people, how does one choose? This, of course, requires research and depends on one’s specific global market strategy. For example, according to Gikunda, Google focuses on “widely spoken lingua francas in regions that have the highest potential for internet adoption.” For Google, these include: Amharic, Swahili, Afrikaans, and isiZulu. So, when developing your localization strategy for Africa, be sure to consult with local market experts and your language services provider (LSP) to determine which languages would be optimal to effectively engage your target audiences.


What about character and font display issues? Some languages like Swahili and Afrikaans, use Roman characters and generally do not present significant display issues. Other languages like Amharic sometimes require that a font be installed to properly view the language, depending on the software and version. Other programs may not support this language at all. A language like Yoruba presents a different issue because while it uses Roman characters, there are so many different accents, or diacritical marks, to express the tonality of the language that there can be a lot of character display issues. See this example (and be sure to scroll over the text for more information). For these trickier languages, consult with your LSP so tests can be run to determine what type of character display issues will need to be addressed and resolved.


Are there trained linguists available to translate into African languages? The number of qualified translators for African languages is somewhat limited and even more so for the rarer languages, which means there may just need to be more flexibility and time allotted to ensure the right resources are available. With that said, there is a growing pool of highly educated and qualified linguists that are often polyglots and can translate to and from multiple languages given the linguistic diversity of Africa. For more information, see this Common Sense Advisory report on African translation issues and resources.


While there are certainly challenges to translating for African countries, we hope this information will help you better understand and effectively address these issues. Then, you can catch the wave of the growing economic tide in Africa to expand your global reach and stay ahead of the curve, no matter what the language! For more information and assistance, contact us today!  

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