Macro/Micro: Out of Africa

Could the future of African translation lie in the United States? I’m not talking alternative realities
 here — Star Trek, science fiction, whatnot. The truth is, immigration in America is changing. According to Ron Crouch with the Kentucky State Data Center, immigration is actually at a low point when compared to what it was in the course of US history. The reason why Americans perceive immigration to be on the rise is because the number of countries that immigrants are entering the United States from is higher than it’s ever been before, making immigration seem larger. And the ways in which they’re coming are more diverse too.

Not every immigrant today is what we commonly think of as a traditional immigrant. In addition to those who choose to come here of their own free will, today’s immigrants also include aslyees, internationally displaced persons and refugees. While the number the United States accepts annually changes at the will of the President, 3.2 million of the world’s current 12 million refugees are African. Around half of the world’s 25 million internationally displaced persons are also African. Regardless of immigrant type and whether they come to the United States or not, African emigration is on the rise. All told, the Center for African Refugees and Immigrants reports that since 1980, nearly 900,000 African immigrants have moved to the United States. That’s a group larger than the cities of San Francisco, Boston or Seattle.

This influx of African immigrants, especially refugees, has created a vast need in the United States for African language translating and interpreting. Areas of the country that have long been historically monolingual now face a diversity of tongues, linguistically paralyzing those who serve their speakers. From schools to hospitals, hundreds of social service organizations in rural areas all across the country have spent the last dozen years or so trying to figure out how to make do. The result is a community translating and interpreting movement, one far removed from the worlds of Silicon Valley and Monterey. Catholic Charities and other refugee resettlement organizations have become de facto language service providers (LSPs) and small to mid-sized LSPs now find themselves having to deal with refugee resettlement as a black horse competitor for local clients. In Kentucky alone, 116 languages are spoken in public schools, with Mai-Mai, a Somali Bantu language, being the seventh most common. As a result, during the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Catholic Charities of Louisville (Kentucky) purchased $945,882 in freelance, community translating and interpreting.

Interpreting in a hospital or translating a school enrollment form is one thing. Providing language services to Fortune 500 companies is another. But let’s face it — not all Fortune 500s have their you-know-what together when it comes to translation purchasing. In Louisville, Kentucky, for example, where our main office is, it’s not unheard of for a company the size of, oh, let’s say UPS to call Catholic Charities for an interpreting quote. To those of us working in the professional localization realm, this may seem unheard of, but the way this comes about is natural once you think about it. At a company where purchasing is decentralized, an un- or under-educated customer sees refugees in her community, knows they were located here by Catholic Charities, and of course calls Catholic Charities thinking that if they work with immigrants they must know people who speak foreign languages. What this says about our industry’s need to better educate the occasional corporate buyer is one thing; what it says about the changing face of community translation is another. Long thought of as professional translation’s redheaded stepchild, our industry’s community version is carving out a serious name of its own.

This community sector is not to be neglected. After all, where else are you going to readily find Igbo? In the United States, a federal law called Title VI dictates that equal access be provided to anyone seeking government services regardless of a myriad of civil rights discriminators, among which one is language. This means that with the influx of immigrants comes a community obligation to make sure drivers’ tests, health department visits and parent-teacher communications are multilingual. Federal law also dictates that organizations resettling refugees make provision for the refugees’ first three months in the United States. This includes providing or helping to locate language services. So if necessity is the mother of invention, the invention birthed here is a second industry parallel to our own.

Okay. Time to whip out your algebra, everyone. If a train leaves Point A traveling at 100 miles per hour, and 437 miles to the east a second train on the same track leaves Point B traveling at 75 miles per hour, when will they collide? In other words, at some point soon, professional and community language services are going to run into each other.

Translation is, of course, best done in the country it is destined for. That’s more than an industry standard, it’s common sense. Language changes, people change, culture changes. To truly reach the continent, we must build translation on the continent. This article would do an injustice if it didn’t mention that Africa’s translation market is truly on the brink of being something great. But what does it hurt to develop two trains? While they’re working there, we can still work here. With the refugees came their languages, and when our industry failed to present their new communities with a solution, refugee resettlement created one of its own. Our industry as a whole limits its own resources if we do not ask what their solution can solve for us.