Overcoming the translation challenges in African language publishing for children

I consider translation as a way of increasing the amount of reading material for African children.

‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’.

Nelson Mandela

Translation is an act of re-creation, sharing, and reciprocal development between readers and writers of different languages. The potential of translation to greatly increase output with minimal effort is clear. Not all, however, feel comfortable with the use of translation as a way of increasing the amount of reading material for African children.

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There are however some concerns about the cultural appropriateness of some of the books being translated into African languages. Sometimes, translations don’t really reflect the aspirations and the concerns of the very target groups that the publisher try to reach. So publishers would rather go for original texts than translations.

Another worry is that translation is detrimental to the development of original literature in African languages, a view implicit, for instance, in the Ithuba Project[1], which insists that materials are generated in the mother tongue

  1. Translation dilemma encountered by publishers

Most African publishers argue that, while the most spoken home languages are African languages, there is little reader demand for African language books, and that it would not be financially viable for them to publish books in these languages. They feel that expansion into the trade market with African language books is unrealistic, citing reasons such as the pervasiveness of oral culture, lack of disposable income, and low levels of literacy. However, this interpretation is overly simplistic, because Africans do read when the content is affordable, accessible, and of interest.

Moreover, African language books are still very much only associated with school education. The international status of English and the perceived inferiority of African languages adds to this problem. However, if publishers published more African language books outside the school market, more people would read these texts.

I do recognize that publishers are businesses who need to publish where there is a market to make a profit. Authors also realize this, and often — even though they are mother-tongue speakers of African languages — prefer to write in English, French or Portuguese in order to get published and to ensure a wider audience for their book(s).

  • Challenges for translators of children’s books

The pool of people available to undertake the translation of books for children is small and complaints about the quality of translation are frequent. While it is easy to find local languages translators in other countries such as Russia, Serbia, Arabic, etc., it’s difficult to find an expert translator in African languages. Other challenges for translators include the high level of specialism required for working with children’s literature and issues around standardization.

  1. Specialist skills

The specialist skills required when translating for children are often underestimated. Unlike translating fiction for adults, a wide range of other factors need to be considered when translating for children, such as who the reader is (a child or an adult reading aloud). Translating for children is therefore widely considered to be more difficult than translating for adults because of the need to take into consideration the implied reader, the fluent child reader, or the adult reading to the child. Picture books, where words and images work to produce an inseparable whole, are by far the largest category of children’s books and create particular challenges. The text needs to ‘talk’ or closely relate to the pictures on the same page and translators need to be able to ‘read’ this relationship.

In addition, the space available for the translation can be a challenge when different languages require different amounts of text. Translators also need to deal with visual cultural differences such as the symbolism of colors or different attitudes towards animals. A further complication is that picture books are intended to be read aloud to children. Translators, therefore, need to take account of features that affect the rhythmic totality of a performance, including sentence length, punctuation, page openings, and turnings.

It is also the case that children’s books are more likely to be adapted to the need of the target audience than to be translated, a process that can involve additions as well as deletions. There is very little consensus about what constitutes a ‘good’ translation of a children’s book. Some translators emphasize truth to the text; others attach greater importance to being true to the reader, believing that change is sometimes essential if the translated text is to work for the target audience.

Translators operating in this field need not only to be proficient linguists but also to have an in-depth knowledge of books for children, and there is a serious shortage of people with the relevant breadth of experience. This situation is, of course, by no means limited to African languages. A similar scenario has been described, for instance, in relation to the problems experienced in producing Asian language translations of children’s books in the United Kingdom by Edwards and Walker in 1995.

Successful translations are often the result of teamwork and negotiation. Through teamwork, illustrators, authors, translators, publishers, and different readers meet and influence each other. The professionalization of translators with the relevant specialist skills is a journey. In South Africa, it took the PRAESA Early Literacy Unit, over 8 years, to develop professional translators of children’s books in Xhosa. It’s only through extensive experience of using good quality books with children in schools and reading clubs, that they can now legitimately consider themselves experts in both isiXhosa and in children’s literature.

  • Standardization

The translation of African language literature for children is further complicated by the varying stages of standardization of the different languages. Two competing trends can be detected in African linguistics: diversification and homogenization.

At one extreme, it is estimated that in excess of 2300 languages are spoken in Africa; at the other extreme, some writers contend that 75-80% of all sub-Saharan Africans speak one of between 12 and 16 root languages (Prah 2009). The situation in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal where many languages are used, reflects the propensity for diversification.

Language identification remains a highly political and sociocultural exercise; having made a personal investment in learning a particular variety, most people, including translators, demonstrate strong loyalty to that variety. South African publishers are very aware of the resulting tensions: If one develop materials in Setswana, one will find that people, say in Kimberley or areas outside the Hurutsi, look at those materials and say: ‘Ah, this isn’t proper Setswana, this isn’t my Setswana, this is Hurutsi Setswana’. And it’s true of all South African national languages. Thus, the work that remains to be done in the area of terminology has important implications for the economics of translation. As the director of an agency explained: [In] European languages you can average roughly 2500 words per day. African languages, you cut it down to 1100 per day, so less than half … if there’s not a term, it needs to be described. There’s a lot more thinking going into developing the languages.


As translation becomes increasingly professionalized, it is interesting to note that children’s book publishers in Africa and globally, are increasingly outsourcing work to agencies. This approach has the advantage of ensuring input from three sources: the translator, the editor, and the proofreader. Since most are working virtually and anonymously on the same project, they are able to bypass status issues. Overall, the development of children’s literature in African languages is a work in progress and we shouldn’t underestimate the advances which have already been achieved.

This article has been partially inspired by Edwards, V., Ngwaru, J. M. (2011). African language publishing for children in South Africa: challenges for translators. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 14(5), 589-602. Available at: http://ecommons.aku.edu/eastafrica_ied/15

[1] The work of the Ithuba Writing Project targeted the development of stories for each of the intermediate grades (4-6) across each of the three target genres (health, science literacy, and numeracy). This yielded a targeted number of 280 titles, of which the partners in this project selected the most appropriate and well-developed titles for publication purposes. Of those titles, 140 are written in the nine official and indigenous languages of South Africa, and 140 are translated into English versions.

À propos de l'auteur

Christian Elongue

Christian Elongué est l'auteur de la référence critique "Introduction à la littérature jeunesse au Cameroun", aux Editions l'Harmattan. Il a collaboré pour la promotion de l’édition jeunesse africaine avec la revue Takam Tikou du Centre National de littérature pour la jeunesse de la Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Passionné par le livre et la lecture depuis l’enfance, il est convaincu de l’enjeu critique du livre pour enfants dans l’avènement d’une poétique de la relation et dans la construction d’une mentalité de « vainqueur » auprès des jeunes africains. Il est attentif depuis 6 ans à l’évolution des échanges entre les pays du sud et les pays du nord dans le domaine de l’édition.

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