30 Years, Just Getting Started
By Steve Rainwater
Alfred Mtawali comes across as a regular guy. He’s definitely not establishment; often dressed colorfully in the confident way of a Kenyan. His cordial disposition doesn’t seek attention but soon arouses interest. He immediately puts anyone at ease. His way of life is about his work, which at every touchpoint includes giving back from any abundance he produces in his life.
Alfred is a translator. The moment he discovered the craft, he knew it was the business for him. He tried working a “real job” hoping to please his father. When applied to a hotel and worked one day as a waiter, he decided hospitality wasn’t his life’s calling.
Now Mtawali, as friends and associates call him, has been translating for 30 years and is the owner of two agencies. His father and business mentor passed away in 2009, knowing his son was a legitimate businessman, who had also found his grand purpose.
In the solitary business of translation, Alfred is in his element at the word face, where he translates English into Swahili. During these 30 years, Alfred also developed numerous ways to use his solitary profession and warm disposition to build community. As Mtawali thrives in the language business, those in his orbit benefit, succeed, and prosper.
h Humble beginnings
The now-entrepreneur reflects graciously on his modest start in life. He recalls himself as “one of those kids who didn’t have proper shoes for school.” It’s a fond memory since he credits good education as the enabler for his personal and professional path. He’s also keenly aware of education’s importance in opening doors for Africans.
Alfred Mtawali grew up 56 clicks north of Mombasa, Coastal Kenia, in the picturesque town of Kilifi. The fourth born of his mother and one of many siblings among his father’s four wives, good results in local primary school qualified him for the national Nairobi School. Immediately upon finishing secondary school, he worked for a year at Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). After his day as a hotel waiter, he grew tomatoes, and later spent time searching for work while living with his uncle. Ten years would pass before he finally completed his initial university program in translation studies in 2008.
Bible translator to business owner
Alfred’s language talent was recognized early on. While housed with his uncle, his pastor told him about an opportunity to become part of a linguistics team, translating the Bible into Giryama, a large ethnic language group of coastal Kenya. Alfred applied, tested, and was accepted as the youngest translator on the team. He was sent to a five-week ICIT course to learn translation principles. After completion, he joined the Bible project, where he remained involved for nearly 20 years.
It was on this project he met lifelong friend and colleague, Vincent Hiribae. Alfred and Vincent did the translation training together, later attended college together, and have worked jointly in some capacity since those early days. Hiribae recalls, as they began to grow in the profession, “Mtawali had this idea for a company.”
The youngest translator of the Bible team soon became the lead translator. Alfred says it’s still the greatest project of his life, helping define his profession and his faith. It was very much a missionary endeavor, so compensation was modest. In his ambition, and while doing other work to support himself, Alfred founded CAN Translators in 2007 (CAN here is also an acronym — Clear-Accurate-Natural). CAN Translators began a new chapter.
Mtawali the linguist became Mtawali the entrepreneur. As a business owner, he got an early project out of South Africa translating a curriculum into Swahili and never looked back. As revenue came in, he soon moved from rural Kenya “to the city” (Nairobi), a milestone he casually says because he could “afford the rent.”
Kenya and the African continent are replete with opportunities for the language business, as economies develop locally and internationally. The scope of CAN Translators aimed to serve African markets, but the company now also works in European and Asian languages, given the ongoing societal growth. While Alfred expands opportunity via CAN Translators, he’s also reaching forward via his Christian translation roots. In 2021 he started Christian Language Solutions (Christian Language Solutions), an entity set up to specifically work in the influx and proliferation of translated books and materials. As the Christian faith undergoes explosive growth in Africa, Alfred and his companies become more entrenched in these markets.
Alfred cites his late father as the most significant influence for his commercial pursuits. “In terms of business, my dad takes number one,” he said. “He was a good entrepreneur, supplying firewood to schools and prisons; a business he used to educate all of us.”
Vincent Hiribae sees Alfred as a problem solver in his own right — a trait he admires. “He knows how to get things done,” he said. “Sometimes we have projects where there are obstacles. Mtawali finds a creative solution and finds a way to make it happen; sometimes with little resources, he takes the lead. He also knows how to dispel a difficult moment. He can be very silly at the right time. He wasn’t always that way. He used to be shy. Now his ability to interact mobilizes others. His leadership is around the country and in the translation associations; he’s mobilizing, and learning.”
Alfred considers Catherine Barnwell his leading translation mentor, referencing her translation textbook as his guide since the early years. He’s at once thinking technically and big picture.
Family and song
Family is a tapestry woven into everything Alfred does. His early education was a family affair attending school with his many siblings. He received his earliest examples of hard work and entrepreneurship from his father. He lived and worked with his uncle, believing that “extended family builds character.”
Now a business owner with a family of his own, married 24 years to his wife Hellen, with their daughter Neema, extended family is always close by. Alfred, Hellen, and Neema are highly involved in the local community through their church and private charity. There’s also music. Alfred performs music regularly with his wife, daughter, and other family members, a shared interest they love.
Music is the “chord” running through Mtawali’s life. He smiles when sharing that he comes from a family of musicians. His earliest aspirations were musical. Accomplished as a youth on the e-flat tuba, he envisioned joining the military to play in the brass band. But it never came about.
Ambition took him in professional directions, but music didn’t fade. Alfred is a recording artist with four albums, and he leads a regularly performing band. On the CAN Translators website, you can actually schedule Mtawali’s Band for a gig. One stop for language services and cultural immersion.
Mtawali’s Band is seen singing and colorfully dancing on YouTube and other social media platforms. In 2013, on Madaraka Day — the annual June 1 celebration of Kenya’s self-rule — following an invitation by the Presidential Music Commission (PMC), the band performed for Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Their song, Shika Upanga Wako, is a Christian traditional song fusing modern instruments with traditional ones.
Mtawali’s Band is renowned for its rendition of Shika Upanga Wako. Vincent Hiribae notes how interesting it is for his colleague to also have a hit song. “You just hear people around Kenya singing it.”
Hellen, noted in the media as the Songbird of Kenya, and Neema sing and perform both cultural and Christian music. Alfred sings and plays multiple instruments. “Fortunate and blessed” is how he describes the feeling of working in a band made up of family and close friends.
Preparing the next generation
Mentoring is a priority for Mtawali. He knows the impact others had on his own life. He mentions Rev. Stephen Sirya, project manager on the Bible project, as well as his late father and others. Alfred gives back purposefully, developing young people and professionals by sharing his many skills.
He runs his own charity organization, Kilifi Watoto Center, to facilitate education for young Kenyans, once again emphasizing the education differentiator for the country as a whole. “Education is the path to a better life for us,” he said. “I know how important it was for me, so we try to help others achieve a good education.”
Alfred contributes his own funds to help select students pay for education. He also pairs up other contributors, including his translation colleagues, with students who need help. Vincent Hiribae points out this is how Mtawali mentors the contributors in subtler yet equally effective ways. “He helps them do great work and learn to give. This helps the students learn and helps the contributors grow.”
Mtwali also believes mentorship is key for African-language workers’ professional development, so he aggressively pursues mentorship as a business strategy. Each year, he takes three interns from Moi University into his business. Through interning, translation students get unique exposure to the business side of the industry, and a faster track to professional competency.
To Alfred, this is much more than added capacity. Close associate and language professor, Dr. Vincent Magugu of Moi University agrees. Sharing his own experience, he backs up the benefits of the CAN Translators internship program.
“I didn’t really understand the business of translation until Alfred started working with our students. As a result, I’m no longer only an academic professor. I also work as a freelance translator. This creates more opportunities to help our students get ready to work in the language business, to prepare for the future.”
After 30 years in business, Alfred is not done growing. He smiles again as we talk more on Zoom, recalling that at first, he envisioned finishing his Bible project and doing something else with his life. Now as a linguist, business owner, mentor, person of faith, and musical artist with an MA in Development, he sees more to do.
He clarifies he’s a translator, not an interpreter. Growing in his craft, he still works on client texts daily, thereby learning more about the needs in the African market. In addition to his native Giryama, he speaks Swahili, Lingala, and English, working in all of them. One local project involves training in-house translators for KEMRI, the place he first worked as a high school graduate.
He’s bullish on the African market, convinced it will keep growing in importance globally. In his positivity, he doesn’t overlook the need for change. He cites low rates for linguists as a major roadblock to growth. Translation buyers and agencies procuring African services at reduced rates prevent professional development. Many African linguists cannot afford CAT tools or well-equipped offices, although he praises select industry technology companies by name, who make professional discounts available.
He also hopes infrastructure continues to improve. “There are talented Africans living in rural areas who could simply do more work if they had facilities and connections. Not all of them can or should move to the city, but growth where they are requires focused effort.”
He knows international relations are critical in expanding African markets. Alfred recently purchased interpreting equipment for his company, a significant investment that took some years from concept to fruition. He says simultaneous conference interpreting would grow faster in Africa if not for the lack of equipment. He’s doing his part and booking as many meetings as he can, employing gifted African interpreters and growing his conference work accordingly.
Alfred is attending more conferences and heading abroad to Europe and the US for industry events. In 2022, he attended the International Federation of Translators conference in Cuba. There, he received the Marion Boers Prize for one of his book translations, evidence again that this language entrepreneur stays anchored in the work.
He is the Chair Emeritus of the East Africa Interpreters and Translators Association, where he stepped down as president, serving from 2013 to 2021. He also is the Kenya chapter head for the International Association of Professional Interpreters and Translators.
Alfred Mtawali knows that a rising tide lifts all boats. Business proliferation, linguist development, education, and technology enablement are his winning strategies. He says ultimately the language business in Africa needs to solve its own problems. His leadership contributions are making that happen.
Steve Rainwater is a Florida-based linguist and writer. He works in B2B communications, translating from Portuguese to English since 2014, and specializes in industrial markets, B2B news, and niche books.