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What have 10 years of democracy achieved for multilingualism in South Africa?

Joint press release issued by SATI and i-MAG

International Translation Day 2004: 30 September

On 30 September the world celebrates International Translation Day (ITD). This day, commonly known as St Jerome's Day in commemoration of the patron saint of translators, has been promoted by the International Federation of Translators (FIT) since 1991 to give prominence to this largely invisible profession.

It is appropriate that International Translation Day should fall on the last day of Heritage Month in South Africa, since the theme for ITD 2004 is "Translation, underpinning multilingualism and cultural diversity". It is even more appropriate that it should carry this particular theme as we celebrate our 10th year of democracy and take stock of what has been achieved over that time.

The South African constitution in its founding provisions gives the country 11 official languages, which it says "must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably". In addition, it states that in view of their historically diminished use and status, the state must take measures to elevate the status and advance the use of the indigenous languages.

One of the easiest ways of doing this is to use competent translators and interpreters. This enables people to use their mother tongues - the languages in which they are most comfortable and in which they can express themselves best. They can concentrate on the message they wish to convey, without having to worry about whether the words they are using are the correct ones or the best for the situation.

South Africans are generally a multilingual nation, where the majority of people can speak more than one language, and in many cases three or four or five different languages. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are equally comfortable in all those languages and able to express themselves equally well in them all.

The fact that so many South Africans use more than one language makes us blasé and many people assume that if you can speak two or more languages, you will be able to translate easily between them. This is not necessarily true - some people can communicate in different languages, but are not as successful in transferring the message ACCURATELY between those languages. They may put across the broad picture adequately, but lose the nuances.

It is unfortunate that despite our constitutional mandate to develop and use all the official languages in South Africa, English continues to dominate. Of course there are financial and logistical implications to practising multilingualism rather than simply paying lip service to it, but if this is a principle worth supporting, then creative solutions must be found. Moves have been made by government to put the frameworks in place - a National Language Plan has been accepted by Cabinet and the Pan South African Language Board is now well established - but when it comes to putting flesh on these bones progress is generally slow. Language does not appear to be high on anyone's agenda. There are national language bodies for each of the official languages, but how often do we hear what they are doing? There was a wonderful government initiative to introduce a telephone interpreting service in South Africa; the pilot project was a great success, but the idea seems to have been mothballed. We have excellent interpreters in this country (remember the interpreting of the TRC hearings) and our national and provincial legislatures are mostly equipped with interpreting equipment, but how often do we hear our politicians speaking languages other than English? We hear different languages used in the African Parliament, in the United Nations and in the European Community, so why can't they be used in South Africa? If the example does not come from the top, how can we expect our children to develop a pride in their language and culture?

On International Translation Day, the South African Translators' Institute calls on government and industry to use the wonderful linguistic resources and heritage that we have in this country to give effect to the principles that are in place and show the world that multilingualism can work in practice.


Translators and interpreters celebrate cultural diversity

Press Release

International trade… Globalisation… Alternatives to globalisation… Anti-conflict measures… The world moves and communication plays an ever-increasing role. Yet should the complexity of these situations compel us to give way to a "lingua franca" for the sake of simplicity or should we defend separate identities, cultural diversity and indigenous languages? The answer is clear, and UNESCO touched on it in its universal declaration on cultural diversity: "Cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as bio-diversity is for nature".

It is never stated, yet this diversity and the associated rights could not be guaranteed without the discreet presence - the omnipresence - of translation. Translators and interpreters are continually at the core of communication, eternal conveyors of ideas and actions shaping the world in which we live. Translation is thus, simultaneously, a multilingual communication vector and synonymous with opening outwards to others and opening up to democracy.

On 30 September the world celebrates International Translation Day (ITD), which gives us the opportunity to consider the role of this largely invisible profession. The theme of International Translation Day this year, which appropriately falls on the last day of Heritage Month in South Africa, is "Translation, underpinning multilingualism and cultural diversity".

South Africa has a rich cultural heritage and translators and interpreters play a vital role in maintaining and helping to spread knowledge about this heritage. An enormous amount of work is obviously done at international level, but even here at home translators contribute to mutual respect and understanding.

This is achieved in many different ways, but one of the most prominent is through the translation of literature. Literature gives expression to the soul of a nation and exposure to others' literature helps us understand them better and appreciate their richness. The South African Translators' Institute in 2000 established an Award for Outstanding Translation that aims, among other things, "to promote cross-cultural understanding" and "to raise awareness of the role of translators in uniting the people of South Africa". The 2003 award was made to Antjie Krog for her translation of indigenous poetry in her anthology Met woorde soos met kerse. More recently Ms Krog has released another anthology, this time translating the poetry of the San people: Die sterre sê Tsau. These works have opened up a variety of cultural goods to the rest of the nation as well as internationally. This is just one example of the value of the translation profession.

A few interesting facts:

  • Did you know that the Bible has been translated into 414 languages and some books into as many as 1 941 languages and dialects? Africa leads the field, with translations of the full Bible into 153 languages and sections of the scriptures into a further 512 languages and dialects!
  • Did you know that Asterix and Tintin have both been translated into more than 40 languages or dialects?
  • The 10 most translated authors/books in the world with over 1 500 translations each are Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, The Bible, Lenin, Jules Verne, Barbara Cartland, Enid Blyton, William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen and The Grimm Brothers.

Issued by the South African Translators' Institute www.translators.org.za
For further information or interviews, contact: Marion Boers 011 803 2681 or Wilna Liebenberg 021 976-9563

South African Translators' Institute
PO Box 27711
Tel/fax: (011) 803-2681.
E-mail: publications@translators.org.za

The South African Translators' Institute is the only professional association representing translators and interpreters in South Africa. It has over 600 members, who work in around 50 different languages. The Institute accredits both translators and conference interpreters, as well as editors and terminologists.

  • Klik hier vir die Afrikaanse weergawe

    LitNet: 28 September 2004

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