South Africa has one of the most progressive language policies in the world, but even that is no guarantee of things always working the way one expects them to.
Up to 1994, the language dispensation in South Africa was much the same as in Canada – bilingualism. The British colonization of South Africa from 1814, which had followed mostly Dutch rule since 1652, led in 1835 to what we know today as the Great Trek – the movement of Dutch settlers away from the Cape of Good Hope to form independent states in the interior of the country. A consequence of this move was a loss of contact with the Dutch language, which led to the development of Afrikaans as separate language from Dutch. When South Africa became a union in 1910, both Dutch and English were recognized as official languages. In 1925, Afrikaans gained official recognition as an independent language and replaced Dutch. However, it was really from the time the Nationalist Afrikaner government came to power and introduced apartheid in 1948 that Afrikaans truly came into its own as an official language and that bilingualism became official policy.
This situation continued until South Africa’s new democracy in 1994. Under apartheid, nine African languages were promoted, but only within the so-called Bantustans. This period saw the separate development of these languages – Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Ndebele, Southern Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, and Venda. In the new constitution, promulgated in 1996, these ‘indigenous’ languages, together with Afrikaans and English, were all recognized as official languages in democratic South Africa. In an effort to overcome the disparities of the past, the constitution provides that all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably. Furthermore, it states that in view of the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of those languages.
Those in the language field rejoiced when this became law, expecting to see the indigenous or ‘African’ languages develop and become part of the mainstream of life in South Africa.
Unfortunately, this has not happened to anywhere near the extent hoped for. Legislation has been passed requiring the different provinces to designate official provincial languages to be used in all official forums, while a framework was developed for the national level outlining which of the different language groups among the official languages should be used for all official documentation.
The framework is there, but with all the other needs in South Africa, language is not seen as a priority and so the requirements are not policed and thus largely not implemented in practice. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of African-language speakers do not stand up for their rights in this regard and in fact many prefer their children to be educated in English rather than their mother tongue, as they feel this will be of greater benefit to them in the long term. As a result, English has become the lingua franca in South Africa.
Those in the translation profession find this a most unfortunate state of affairs. One hopes that it will change over time. In the meantime, translation does continue into all the official languages, though on a smaller scale than one might like to see. Afrikaans still dominates the translation scene, because Afrikaners have worked hard over decades to develop their language since 1925, and it became a scientific language as far back as the early 1950s. They are proud of their language and make sure it is used. This should serve as an inspiration for the other official languages as to what can be achieved with dedication and enthusiasm.
For the moment, colleagues who translate into African languages are faced with the challenge of working without all the resources taken for granted in the well-established languages. There is a dearth of dictionaries and grammars, and vocabulary, especially for modern terminology, often has to be conceived on the fly. Yet when necessary it is done, and done well, which shows the enormous potential of those languages and their speakers.
Africans are natural linguists and most black South Africans speak at least three or four indigenous languages. Many speak English – and even Afrikaans – just as well as their own language. This in fact contributes to the lack of pressure to further develop African languages and to demand materials in those languages: “Everyone speaks English or can understand it, so why bother with translation?” Of course, this is not universally true, especially in the rural areas, and the government should insist that the relevant legislation is upheld to provide multilingual documentation.
The translation scene in South Africa is not all gloom and doom, though. In 2014 the government promulgated legislation to regulate the profession. A statutory council is to be set up and all language practitioners will in time be required to be registered with and accredited by this body in order to practice. This legislation puts South Africa among a small group of countries around the world with statutory regulation of the translation profession, and it is something to be proud of. The legislation is still to be implemented, once a budget is allocated by government, and there will no doubt be teething problems, but the initiative is still praiseworthy. The South African Translators’ Institute started a voluntary accreditation (certification) scheme in the late 1980s to help set standards in the profession, and this will continue until the function is taken over by the statutory council.
The translation profession in South Africa has advanced tremendously over the past 30-odd years. At that stage, there were only two universities that offered translation training, one with an undergraduate course and one with a postgraduate diploma – now there are a dozen, with qualifications at all levels. At that time, most work was between English and Afrikaans, with a small amount in major world languages. Nowadays a huge range of languages is covered, and there are language offices in a number of government and private-sector institutions catering in particular to our official languages. In the 1980s there were virtually no translation agencies in South Africa. Today they form a significant sector of the market, although there is also a great deal of work carried out by freelancers with direct clients.
Down here at the bottom of Africa, language practitioners often feel far away from the bright lights of the major world cities. The translation market here is very different from that in Canada, but it has made great strides and can compete with the best in many ways. South African practitioners are proud of what they achieve with the means at their disposal.
Marion Boers is Executive Director of the South African Translators’ Institute and an accredited freelance translator and editor. She has also served as president of the International Federation of Translators. She writes here in her personal capacity. [firstname.lastname@example.org]