Lan­guage bar­ri­ers lim­it­ing growth across Africa

Business Daily (Kenya) - - MARKET PLACE -

I opened the prover­bial ‘can of worms’ re­cently at a pan-african con­fer­ence held in Liv­ingston, Zam­bia. I in­tended to ini­ti­ate clever con­ver­sa­tion with the lead French in­ter­preter when I asked him what he thought about the speeches and the pre­sen­ta­tions that he had spent a week trans­lat­ing for our Fran­co­phone com­pa­tri­ots.

His an­swer came in the form of a ques­tion and was both blunt and damn­ing. “Why do you treat your Fran­co­phone neigh­bours like step chil­dren, as if their point of view is unim­por­tant?” he asked. We were re­lax­ing by the bar at the end of the day’s pro­ceed­ing and he spoke loud enough to prick the ears of other French speak­ers nearby who pro­ceeded to ap­proach and par­tic­i­pate in the am­bush that he had ini­ti­ated.

I was out­num­bered, and in bro­ken English with sat­u­rated French ac­cents, they tore mer­ci­lessly at me with a wrath that should have been re­served for the Queen. In this case they sin­gled me out as her sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive even though we had split ways since Kenya had ac­quired its in­de­pen­dence from Great Bri­tain over 50 years ago.

Their point was sim­ple. If we are to be equal part­ners while pur­su­ing ini­tia­tives across Africa then we should al­ways cre­ate an even play­ing field where phi­los­o­phy, case stud­ies and pro­pos­als can be shared by any­one ir­re­spec­tive of lan­guage group, and these should be eas­ily un­der­stood by all. Sim­ply pro­vid­ing trans­la­tion ser­vices for a con­fer­ence that has been de­signed in English does not cre­ate an eq­ui­table en­vi­ron­ment.

They drove their point home like a heavy boot to the back­side, and in stride with Saint Paul, the scales fell from my eyes.

I re­al­ized that in the board­rooms across the An­glo­phone coun­tries, as com­pa­nies con­sid­ered com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties be­yond their bor­ders, we had erected sky high men­tal bar­ri­ers that shielded us from the Fran­co­phone na­tions, and vice versa.

In a mod­ern world fully equipped with Google Trans­late and other lan­guage apps, there is no rea­son at all not to tar­get a coun­try that has cho­sen to speak a dif­fer­ent Euro­pean lan­guage as a re­sult of their colo­nial his­tory. Busi­ness mod­els don’t nec­es­sar­ily get lost in trans­la­tion in the same way that hu­mor does, how­ever funny that might sound.

Africans may even go as far as point­ing fin­gers and ac­cus­ing one an­other of be­ing a dif­fer­ent type of Euro­pean. I once found my­self in that po­si­tion when I pointed out that my Sene­galese host was too ‘French’ be­cause she didn’t of­fer me af­ter­noon tea. She like­wise em­pha­sized that I was too ‘English’ for her tastes.

In an­other pan-african con­fer­ence in Nairobi over ten years ago, one of the del­e­gates, when ask­ing a ques­tion dur­ing the pro­ceed­ings, chose to make a meal of it and spoke elo­quently in French for over 15 min­utes. The ma­jor­ity were suitable em­bar­rassed be­cause we did not un­der­stand a word of what he said.

When the con­tents of his rant were even­tu­ally trans­lated to us by the MC who co­in­ci­dently spoke French, we were even more ashamed be­cause he de­tailed the pains that the Fran­co­phone del­e­gates had gone through to at­tend this con­fer­ence and yet the or­gan­is­ers had the au­dac­ity not to make any ar­range­ment to cater for the lan­guage dif­fer­ences.

As a group, they were declar­ing their in­ten­tion to march out and re­turn home. It is funny how money for in­ter­preters and trans­la­tion equip­ment can ap­pear out of thin air when peo­ple yell out ul­ti­ma­tums in a ‘for­eign’ lan­guage.

Busi­ness mod­els don’t nec­es­sar­ily get lost in trans­la­tion in the same way that hu­mour does, how­ever funny that might sound

Mr Otin is a dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing ex­pert and CEO of The Col­lec­tive, an in­ter­ac­tive ad agency. www.

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