Overcoming The Translation Challenges In African Language Publishing For Children

This week Muna Kalati Director Christian Elongué reflects on translation as a way to increase the amount of reading material for African children. 

By Christian Elongué

Translation is an act of re-creation, sharing and reciprocal development between readers and writers of different languages. The potential of translation to greatly increase output is clear. Not everyone, however, feels comfortable with the use of translation as a way of increasing the amount of reading material for African children.

‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ Nelson Mandela

There are concerns about the cultural appropriateness of some of the books being translated into African languages. Sometimes, translations don’t really reflect the aspirations and the concerns of the very target groups that the publishers try to reach. So publishers would rather go for original texts than translations.

Another worry is that translation is detrimental to the development of original literature in African languages, a view implicit, for instance, in the Ithuba Project [1] which insists that materials are generated in the mother tongue.

Translation Dilemma Encountered by Publishers

Many African publishers argue that, even though the languages most spoken at home are African languages, there is little demand from readers for books in African languages, and that it would not therefore be financially viable for them to publish books in these languages. They feel that expansion into the trade market with African language books is unrealistic, citing reasons such as the pervasiveness of oral culture, lack of disposable income and low levels of literacy. However, this interpretation is overly simplistic, because Africans do read when the content is affordable, accessible and of interest.

Moreover, African language books are still very much only associated with school education. The international status of English and perceived inferiority of African languages adds to this problem. However, if publishers published more African language books outside the school market, more people would read these texts. Admittedly, publishers are businesses who need to publish where there is a market to make a profit. Authors also realise this, and often—even though they are mother-tongue speakers of African languages—prefer to write in English, French or Portuguese in order to get published and to ensure a wider audience for their book(s).

Challenges for Translators of Children Books

The pool of people available to undertake the translation of books for children is small and complaints about the quality of translation are frequent. While it is easy to find translators of local languages in other countries such as Russia, Serbia or Arabic-speaking countries, it is difficult to find expert translators for African languages. Other challenges for translators include the high level of specialisation required for working with children’s literature and issues around standardisation.

Specialist Skills

The specialist skills required when translating for children are often underestimated. Unlike translating fiction for adults, a wide range of other factors need to be considered when translating for children, such as who the reader is (a child or an adult reading aloud). Picture books, where words and images work to produce an inseparable whole, are by far the largest category of children’s books and create particular challenges. The text needs to ‘talk’ or closely relate to the pictures on the same page and translators need to be able to ‘read’ this relationship.

In addition, the space available for the translation can be problematic when different languages require different amounts of text. Translators also need to deal with visual cultural differences such as the symbolism of colours or different attitudes towards animals. A further complication is that picture books are intended to be read aloud to children. Translators therefore need to take account of features that affect the rhythmic totality of performance, including sentence length, punctuation, page openings and turnings.

It is also the case that children’s books are more likely to be adapted to the need of the target audience than to be translated, a process which can involve additions as well as deletions. There is very little consensus about what constitutes a ‘good’ translation of a children’s book. Some translators emphasise truth to the text; others attach greater importance to being true to the reader, believing that change is sometimes essential if the translated text is to work for the target audience.

Translators operating in this field need to not only be proficient linguists but also have an in-depth knowledge of books for children—and there is a serious shortage of people with the relevant breadth of experience. This situation is, of course, by no means limited to African languages. A similar scenario has been described, for instance, in relation to the problems experienced in producing Asian language translations of children’s books in the United Kingdom by Edwards and Walker in 1995.

Successful translations are often the result of teamwork and negotiation. Through teamwork, illustrators, authors, translators, publishers and different readers meet and influence each other. The professionalisation of translators with the relevant specialist skills is a journey. In South Africa, it took the PRAESA Early Literacy Unit over 8 years to develop professional translators of children books in Xhosa. It’s only through extensive experience of using good quality books with children in schools and reading clubs, that they can now legitimately consider themselves experts in both isiXhosa and in children’s literature.


The translation of African language literature for children is further complicated by the varying stages of standardisation of the different languages. Two competing trends can be detected in African linguistics: diversification and homogenisation.

At one extreme, it is estimated that in excess of 2,300 languages are spoken in Africa; at the other extreme, some writers contend that 75-80% of all sub-Saharan Africans speak one of between 12 and 16 root languages (Prah, 2009). The situation in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, where many languages are used, reflects the propensity for diversification.

Language identification remains a highly political and sociocultural exercise; having made a personal investment in learning a particular variety, most people, including translators, demonstrate strong loyalty to that variety. South African publishers are very aware of the resulting tensions. If materials are developed in Setswana for example, people in Kimberley or areas outside the Hurutsi will look at those materials and say: ‘Ah, this isn’t proper Setswana, this isn’t my Setswana, this is Hurutsi Setswana’. And it’s true of all South African national languages. Thus, the work that remains to be done in the area of terminology has important implications for the economics of translation. As the director of a translation agency explained, with European languages you can average roughly 2,500 words per day. For African languages, you cut it down to 1,100 words per day, so less than half. If a term doesn’t exist, it needs to be described. There’s a lot more thinking going into developing the languages.


As translation becomes increasingly professionalised, it is interesting to note that children’s book publishers, both in Africa and globally, are increasingly outsourcing work to agencies. This approach has the advantage of ensuring input from three sources: the translator, the editor and the proof-reader. Since many work on the same project online and anonymously, they are able to bypass status issues. Overall, the development of children’s literature in African languages is a work in progress and we shouldn’t underestimate the advances which have already been achieved.

This article has been partially inspired by Edwards, V., Ngwaru, J. M. (2011). African language publishing for children in South Africa: Challenges for translators. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 14(5), 589-602. Available at: http://ecommons.aku.edu/eastafrica_ied/15

[1] The work of the Ithuba Writing Project targeted the development of stories for each of intermediate grades (4-6) across each of the three target genres (health, science literacy and numeracy). This yielded a targeted number of 280 titles, of which the partners in this project selected the most appropriate and well-developed titles for publication purposes. Of those titles, 140 are written in the nine official and indigenous languages of South Africa and 140 are translated English versions.

A version of this article was first published by Muna Kalati on 21 August 2021 here.

Christian Elongué is an author and researcher. Dismayed by a lack of black characters in books available to African children, Elongué founded munakalati.org in 2017 with the goal of building international recognition for African children’s book authors and increasing access to African children’s books. In 2019, he authored An Introduction to Children Literature in Cameroon, the first ever survey of the children’s book industry in Cameroon. Prior to that, he worked with the French National Centre for Children’s Literature. As a founding member of International Board of Book for Young People (IBBY-Cameroon), he has also spent several years developing literacy and educational initiatives as a means of empowering children in West Africa.

Want to know more about Muna Kalati, a fast-growing platform promoting children’s books from Africa? Then read our World Kid Lit interview with Director Christian Elongué here.