This article originally appeared in TAUS Review #3 in April 2015

In my previous two articles, I provided readers with a general glimpse of translation and localization contexts and practices in Africa. Those articles, I believe, have helped the readers understand where the industry is in Africa compared to where it is in other parts of the world.

In this third article, I try to picture the translation industry (I deliberately did not include localization here, because it isn’t yet to that stage) in Ethiopia. I write this article from my own experience and from a chat with two veteran translators. It will broadly cover the qualification and professionalism of translators, quality of translation and the nature/type of translation and the market as well as future prospects.

The Translators

In Ethiopia, translation businesses are mainly and traditionally located near judiciary courts and mostly owned by non-professionals. The owners often set up the business either from a point of view of business opportunities or they’re being driven by some kind of push/pull factors. 

The translation business owners have neither the background nor the know-how for translation and hire anyone who says he/she can translate into a certain language. Questions like: ‘How many translators are there?’, ‘What percentage of the translators have what qualifications or training?’, etc. require a survey or study to be answered.

On top of the lack of formal training and experience in translation, which of course contributes to the problem, the translators lack professionalism as well. Some translators show up at the translation companies while they are looking for other jobs or when they just need some immediate money and disappear again afterwards. Others take documents to be translated and never return. Again others lack the skills to type their translations themselves and need typists whom they dictate what they translate.

The nature of employment for these translators is freelancing or temporary, and there is no recruitment procedure. The compensation system for these translators is liberal, i.e., it is done purely through negotiation. The unit for negotiation isn’t defined at all: it can be per number of pages a translator translates, or it can be an agreed amount of lump sum a day, or whatever else the owner and the translator agree upon.

The Translation

Translation, more particularly written/document translation, is as old as the history of written language. Evident to this are the translation of religious manuscripts into Ethiopian languages from Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or Arabic. From religion it moved to the legal, medical, technical, and business sectors. Since then it remained to be document translation: translation of documents such as medical prescriptions and certificates; court orders, decisions, and reports; marketing documents, letters, and other technical documents.

So far so good it appears. However, the issues specific to the Ethiopian translation services are the rate of development/evolution, quality, and accessibility. By rate of development or evolution I mean the rate of growth or dynamism the companies show. The translation companies that exist for 30 years or more are still there doing the same level of translation nearly with the same kind of people and capacity. 

In terms of quality, unless the translation companies recruit trained and in-house translators as well as adopt modern management systems, tools and widen their scope and increase diversity, it is hard to think they’d be able to maintain the quality and punctuality of their translation services.

Finally, when we look at the accessibility, translation companies in the provinces are nearly non-existent. Even in the capital city, Addis Ababa, which is also a seat for the African Union and headquarters of other international organizations, the services are concentrated in one area, called Stadium, and very few near or in judiciary courts, as I mentioned earlier. 

Market and Pricing

When discussing the translation market in Ethiopia, it is crucial to mention the perception of translation of the public and the general business population. As my experience and the experiences of the veteran translators I talked to tell us, most people do not understand translation as a profession and as a business. 

Therefore, when someone needs a certain paper or document to be translated from one language into another, they use their social network and ask a colleague, a relative, or any other person to do it for them for free, regardless of the quality. 

Attributable to this practice and attitude, many individuals as well as professional organizations do not seek professional assistance for their translation needs. Whenever they do, as their expectation is so low, they are shocked when they hear a price quotation of something equivalent to 5 dollars for a small page or 10 dollars for a standard page. 

In consequence, the pricing varies from person to person and document to document depending on the competition level among the translation companies. Some quote very low, others medium or others relatively higher for just the same volume of translation request.

The Future Prospect

For the translation business in Ethiopia to evolve and become dynamic, there are several drawbacks: those discussed in this article as well as others such as ICT infrastructure/facility and skills. Nevertheless, the prospect for the Ethiopian translation business, as I see it, is bright for several reasons and change is inevitable. 

Universities will sooner or later realize that translation and localization is an important industry and in turn will launch programmes that train qualified translators and localizers. Ethiopia is also attracting foreign investors through its Foreign Direct Investment policy more than ever. 

This will create more demand for translation of documents, software, websites, etc. from/into several local languages as well as foreign languages. Many countries in the world have a number of translation companies, agencies and translators, and the sector has become a significant player in their economy. 

Ethiopia is not unique to this and there is no way that we learn from it or are influenced by experiences of other countries.