Address by Deputy Minister Ntombazana Botha, at The International Translation Day Celebrations

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29 Oct 2007

Programme Director, Ms Ntombentle Nkosi (CEO –
PanSALB) and members of the Board
Members of the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture
Led by the Chairperson, Honourable Tshivhase
Language Practitioners and Specialists
Members of the Academia
Representative of the South African Translators’ Institute
Acting Chief Director of the DAC National Language
Service, Dr Jokweni and DAC officials
Distinguished guests
Members of the Media
Ladies and gentlemen

Good afternoon!

I am, indeed, very happy that we are today celebrating the 2007 International Translation Day and I also wish to thank the organisers for inviting me to address this gathering.

International Translation Day is celebrated every year on 30 September but I understand that due to unforeseen circumstances, the celebration had to be postponed. This is a bit disappointing and I hope that we will, in future, mark the day appropriately.

In celebrating the work of translators throughout the world, the International Federation of Translators decided that this year’s theme for International Translation Day would be “Don’t Shoot the Messenger”. It was chosen, I believe, “to draw attention to the hazards faced by translators ……”.

Whilst it is important for South Africa to be affiliated with international organizations, we should also sound a word of caution that we should not follow international trends without contextualizing their aims and objectives to our own situation.

In South Africa today we are faced with different challenges to what the theme suggests. The translation and interpreting professions are still in their infancy, so it may be a little early for us to talk about blaming the translator or interpreter for misrepresentation or misinterpretation. Our current concern is to see to it that translation becomes a fully-fledged profession that will encourage the establishment of small to medium companies, particularly for the African languages, that can, in turn, create work opportunities for the youth and women who studied African languages at tertiary level.

We all know that the tertiary institutions are struggling to reach the quota required to offer courses in African languages. The numbers of students enrolling for African languages are very low because, among other things, there are so few economically viable language professions when they complete their studies. These are some of the challenges that the translation and interpreting profession has to grapple with in this country.

To counteract the dwindling number of students at tertiary level in the language field the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), through the National Language Service, established a post-graduate bursary scheme in 2004.  By the end of this year 79 of those students assisted by this scheme will have obtained qualifications. Nonetheless, one wonders how many of these students will find job opportunities in the language field.

Statistics furnished by DAC indicate that there were no students who received bursaries in siSwati, while seSotho and isiNdebele had two students who received bursaries. SeTswana had three students. It is pleasing to learn that the highly marginalised languages, Xitsonga and Tshivenda, had 22 and 18 students, respectively, who received bursaries.

The bursary scheme points to the fact that the aims of ASGISA can be realised and new avenues to implement its purpose should be explored. Such efforts can only improve the quality of the development and promotion of multilingualism as enshrined in the Constitution. 

I believe that more people would like to study at a university or technikon using their home languages. This calls on us to have more translators for our indigenous languages. Just imagine if all the university books were to be translated into the different indigenous languages. That would be very interesting because we would be able to translate and also understand the meaning of words like "trigonometry", "psychometric" and "vector algebra" in either Tshivenda or isiXhosa. Can you imagine how many sustainable jobs would be created in this way?

As the Department of Arts and Culture, we are trying to instil a culture of reading in our South African society. However, the majority of our people are still unable to read English and would rather read a book written in their own language. If all the books that are written in English were to be translated into our indigenous languages can you imagine how much employment could we create? When it comes to terminology, can you imagine the skills our elders in rural society have ready to be transferred to us and to future generations? This can make us achieve the objectives of ASGISA and JIPSA sooner than we envisaged.

Most of the private companies that are used by the private sector, and to some extent by government, to translate their work, are companies that belong to production houses and we are not sure whether their staff are professionally trained to do the job or not. We would like to see translation companies that are owned by the speakers of the indigenous languages and companies that employ the speakers of those languages. We should not forget that historically, with the previous political dispensation, these languages were not developed as Afrikaans and English were preferred as official languages. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we as a government have promised the citizens of this country that we would do everything possible to create job opportunities in order to eradicate poverty and unemployment. The use of indigenous official languages should, therefore, be one of the instruments that can be used to enhance the status of the poor and the less fortunate and to enable them to access government resources. I am also talking here about rural women and men who cannot read and write but comprehend what is communicated to them orally in their own languages.

In the public and private sectors gender considerations should take centre stage in the employment of language practitioners. For example, according to the South African Translators’ Institute (SATI) they have 14 translators from English to Xitsonga both male and female but only four of them are women out of 14. They also have 14 translators from English to Sesotho and only 4 are women; from English to Sepedi out of 17 translators only 4 are women. This indicates that there are still serious imbalances. These numbers are much less if we take into consideration the number of those who are accredited by SATI.

Let us also take two examples from the provinces. Mpumalanga Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation has only two women translators, one for isiNdebele and one for siSwati, and none of the Mpumalanga provincial departments have sections that are dedicated to translation.

The Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture has a translation unit that is comprised of five translators, 3 women and 2 men, for Sesotho, isiXhosa, and English, and they are in the process of appointing an Afrikaans translator. The Office of the Premier in the Eastern Cape has translators for isiXhosa and Sesotho and the legislature has a translation unit. Like Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape Provincial Government has no other departments that have a dedicated translation unit

The state of affairs regarding translators in South Africa needs to be taken very seriously. Why do we only have one or two Xitsonga, Setswana, isiZulu, Tshivenda, Sesotho, and isiXhosa accredited translators? Why can’t we have more per language to correspond with client demand?

Other encouraging examples are found in some of the National Departments of Government. For example, the DAC National Language Service has eight women and five men translators. In the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, there are two men and two women translators. This is a promising feature that we should see in all of government departments and the Business Sector.

I would like to appeal to all other government departments nationally, provincially and locally to follow the example of the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture in Limpopo, The Limpopo Legislature, and the SA Police Service are paying for their employees to be members of the SATI. This should be enough motivation for other departments and the private sector.

The other critical factor that we should consider is the salary scale of our translators? Are their salaries competitive both in government and in the private sector? Is the remuneration attractive enough to entice the younger generation to follow a career in translation and interpretation?

I understand that the National Language Service is losing a number of translators, and other language practitioners, to other departments and particularly the legislatures, due to salary differences. This matter needs to be addressed as soon as possible because the national departments have to be trendsetters in language matters rather than followers.

African literature is not in a good position at present.  It does not have the wide readership one would wish for, compared to English and Afrikaans.  Translation could play an essential role in expanding readership by translating literature from one African language into the other.  Such translation would expose the non-speakers of the African languages to some of the cultural issues in these languages.

The translated literature would be a means of promoting social cohesion and nation building. Translation would also help to develop and promote African languages literature. The translation of our literature into foreign languages could play a major role in familiarising readers in foreign countries with the linguistic values in our classic literary collections.

The other critical issue that I am concerned about is terminology.  We have so many elders in our rural communities who are uneducated but very conversant with the terminology of our indigenous languages. Is the wisdom of our elders being properly used? If so, are they compensated for their knowledge? Probably not, because they do not have their own companies and no co-operatives. Yet, the specialists, that is, those who have qualifications in this field, will come to them and ask for assistance (to explain the meaning of this or that word) without compensating them. After obtaining the information, the specialists will use the information as if it is theirs and get paid but without acknowledging the source of the information. 

How do we address the question of technical terms that may be found in an English text such as “bureaucracy”? Would it be convenient to Africanise the term or look for an equivalent term in the African languages? These are some of the challenges that the Translation and Editing Directorate, together with the Terminology Coordination Service, will have to solve with the collaboration of institutions of higher education. This manner of including institutions of higher education, particularly in translation and education, will encourage the study of African languages at these institutions.

It is not often that I reluctantly agree to address an occasion like this one. Whilst I appreciate the work that is being done by translators in our country as well as the challenges that they face, I think more could have been done. All of us, that is, government and government institutions, PanSALB, SATI, Parliament, we all need to examine to what extent we are making an impact in promoting the equitable use of the eleven official languages, enhancing the Translation Profession and improving the Translation Services.

We can no longer carry on with business as usual. There are so many challenges and we have to be more proactive and focused. Not all our translators are qualified to do the work. In 2005 I appealed to you to learn as many languages as you can in order to become better communicators, professional translators and interpreters and builders of a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it. But I sense that there is a lot of resistance to this.

We cannot continue to work in silos. We must look at how we can transform this sector in order to make an impact. We have a serious challenge of promoting the equitable use of all eleven official languages as well as sign language and Braille, yet we have not been able to effect a strategic alignment of our programmes. Furthermore, I believe that our translation industry is still not regulated. May I, today, once again, ask all of you to recommit yourselves to placing this profession at the top of the transformation agenda?

I thank you.