Translation Services In Ghana

In 1964, with a view to fostering African unity and seeing that North Africa is predominantly francophone whilst a greater part of the south is predominantly francophone with a sprinkling of Anglophone countries, President Kwame Nkrumah decided to establish the School of Translators (SOT), with the view to training highly qualified translators to feed the then nascent Organization of African Unity. Thus, this month marks the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the school which is being celebrated with the launching of the Alumni Association of SOT on 14th March 2014, among other activities. This write-up is therefore to inform the general public on translators and the work of translation in general.

Quite a number of times, a translator would receive telephone calls or visits from clients who then say “I would like you to interpret a document for me”-in essence meaning they would like a document to be translated. Or also “Do you have a translator who could translate our negotiations or deliberations”-the essence of which is also that they want an interpreter. This mix-up of “translator” with “interpreter” is however not too often; even though a renowned organization such as the BBC is wont to use the phrase “translator”, when in fact they mean “interpreter”. Listening to the BBC, one would certainly almost never hear of an interpretation being done on the BBC being referred to as being done by an “interpreter”.

However, we must grudgingly agree that the BBC may be right, because interpretation may be roughly defined as the act of delving into the meaning of something said or written and fishing out its essence; like making a subjective understanding of or interpreting the Bible or the Koran.

What is translation?

As seen above, translation is a general term used to mean generally written and oral communication from one language into another. However for the sake of this write-up on translators and translation services in Ghana, it is imperative to define translation strictly as “the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text”, i.e. it is a written activity. Interpretation (which is an oral activity) certainly pre-dated translation, since translation began only after the appearance of written literature. Translation is the transfer of a message from a language “B” into a language “A”. It is a meaning based activity and experts talk about many different theories and methods of translation; metaphrasing or literal translation, formal equivalence, functional (idiomatic or dynamic), equivalence and paraphrasing (or a mixture of all to achieve total equivalence) using modulation, semantic equivalence, translation of idioms, proverbs, clichés etc.

The word translation itself, derives from the Latin translatio (which itself comes from trans- and fero (sic. transfer); the supine form of fero is latum, therefore together with trans- it means “to carry across” or “to bring across”. However, the work of a translator is not to make literal (“word-for-word”) transfers, but rather to convey the meaning intended exactly, even idiomatically in the target language and, many at times, this is not easy.

In this respect, there have been very comical slippages where some translators have not succeeded in that quest; such as when the soft-drink giant Pepsi came up with the translation of its “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” slogan. In Taiwan, it became the “horrorful” “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.” And another example of such a goof is Coke, which did not do much better then Pepsi in China.  They chose Chinese characters that, when spoken, sounded like the name Coca-Cola.  However, when translated they meant “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax” depending on the particular Chinese dialect.

It is not only in Chinese that such errors can occur to a translator, but basically in any language. An example is signs produced by the London Metropolitan Police and CrimeStoppers, (an independent charity dedicated to making the streets safer) which read in English as follows: “Pickpockets beware! Undercover police working in this area! In July three pickpockets received sentences of over four years!” The same warning appeared in Spanish on a placard a few lampposts away, but a software program had been used to translate it. The result in Spanish, rendered back into English, read roughly: “The pickpockets are kept. Police of the inner deck that works in the area. In July three the pickpockets received prayers of the prison over of four years.” Thus, one should not take the work of a good translator for granted.

Who is a translator?

One definition says that ”A translator is an individual who fluently reads, writes, and speaks a minimum of two languages, and renders (translates) written words into another language, during which the translated context retains its integrity intact, and is devoid of subjective interpretation”. In actual fact, this definition may include attributes of an interpreter (verbal fluency), thus making the BBC’s usage even more understandable. In practice, a translator needs only to be able to fluently read, understand perfectly and write perfectly the said minimum of two languages, whilst using them to make a perfect translation of any text given him/her. A translator is like a journalist, a lawyer and much more rolled into one. Translators are supposed to adhere to secrecy and be discrete, like a priest, a doctor or a lawyer.

A translator must thus necessarily be bilingual (and thus bicultural) or multilingual, and translate from language “B” (his/her second language, of which he/she has an excellent knowledge) into language “A” which is his her mother tongue of which he/she has a perfect, native speaker/writer knowledge/or which is a language he/she has acquired up to the level of a native of that language. A translator must strictly translate into his/her mother tongue or into the language which has been acquired to the level of a native of that language. When a translator works exclusively into English he/she is called an “English translator”, and exclusively into German he/she is called a “German translator”, and so forth for all other languages.

Some schools of thought demand that a translator must be at least a first university degree holder in his or her language of specialization; but that could mean that the best in the field, who may not be degree holders in that field (i.e. non-professional, experienced, expert freelance translators with native speaker/writer knowledge) and who could be miles ahead of and far better than the university degree holder (s), would thus be sidelined. Many countries in the world and their translator associations therefore dispense with this strict academic limitation and look at ability and expertise, even more than mere degrees, as a requirement for acceptance and recognition as a translator.

A translator must have general knowledge to be able to translate general texts, but also in order to be able to handle highly technical, medical or legal documents-e.g. computer science, aerospace, economics, medicine, law (court cases), constitutional and other legal issues, sociology, literature etc. A translator maybe needed at a conference of teachers of mathematics or of medical professionals in a field (say presenting research papers in AIDS) and be required to make sense in his/her translations. Abroad in the more developed countries, there is therefore a strict specialization in each and every subject be it commercial, religious, technical, medical or legal etc. In Ghana, we cannot yet afford us this since the market here is not yet mature for it and while the translators with such specialised skills just do not exist in Ghana.

Basically, there are two types of translators- freelance translators and professional translators. Freelance translators are mostly bilinguals without any specialized qualification in translation, but many of whom through their talent, skill and experience are about equal to and sometimes even better than a degree-holder translator. Many are however not up to scratch. There are also degree-holder translators, who being jobless, establish themselves independently of a company and are therefore termed freelance translators. The second type of translators is professional translators, employed by an institution, a translation agency or company. In Ghana, there are very few really functional translation agencies and thus very few such professional translators.

In Ghana, we however do have an abundance of freelance translators in almost all languages (excepting Georgian, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Hindu, Urdu and a number of other non-mainstream languages-and this does hampers work in some fields; for example in the police service, the courts and immigration service). Many freelance translators however, for example, some nationals of French speaking countries residing in Ghana, assume and presume a mastery and skill that they do not really possess and they cannot therefore work beyond what is generally termed “format work” (birth and marriage certificates, and police reports, for example). As a result, work which falls outside such repetitive format was in previous times even sometimes rejected by them as “being too difficult”. Being a good translator relies more heavily on being someone who has a thorough understanding of the two cultures (languages) involved and of being someone who can basically even translate without a dictionary or the aid of a computer programme.

Now, yes indeed, computer and internet based translation engines and sites may be coming to the rescue- yet still, a machine cannot replace the human intellect and skill and some translators (whether freelance or professional) may thus still produce objectively substandard translations; substandard translations that are however accepted by the user, be it a government agency or an individual; as long as the salient details in it are clear- e.g. name, date of birth, date of issue, etc. – all other information in it is superfluous for such end-users. Another problem created by this within the translation industry in Ghana is that, basically, a good and faithful translation into which lots of thought and sweat has gone and for which a commensurately and justifiably higher fee is charged, is not respected; there is thus basically a buyer’s market, where mostly therefore the client dictates the terms, including even bargaining about the price; like in the Makola market. This certainly demeans the dignity of the trade and profession.

Is translation a trade or a profession?

It is the wish of products of schools of translators that their work is recognized as a profession, similarly to journalism and law. Wistfully, they have talked of the need to be recognized as “traducteurs assermentés” (sworn translators) are in France or elsewhere. The reality is that translation is an art, science and skill. It can be an art, in which skills can be developed by a linguistically talented person, it can be a science and taught using theories and used in translation programmes and it can be a skill honed-by both non-professionals and professionals-to perfection.

Discussions on many fora, including on the internet have not yielded any clear-cut answer and in a recent forum at the British Council to launch CETRA Language Solutions Ltd in Ghana, Dr. Robert Yennah, Head of Department of French, University of Ghana excellently detailed the quandary of its status-trade or profession-by detailing the many developmental stages necessary to attain professionalism status. Additionally, in reply to a pointed question in this respect, Mr. Jiri Stejskal (Former President of American Translators Association and President and CEO of CETRA) stated that it is only in very few countries in the world that it is clearly legislated as a profession and generally it is a trade, art and skill.

The problem lies in its being a literary and artistic activity like journalism and film-making, in which some non-professionals have achieved even higher than their professionally trained counterparts-and for example, in the late Komla Dumor being recognised as a journalist, as a result of his excellence.

What is a certified translator?

A certified translator is a translator who has passed the requisite certification exam administered by a professional translation organization such as the American Translator Association (“ATA”); such an exam is administered even to products of translation schools- who hold translation degrees. In Ghana, there is certainly no certified translator, according to this definition, since having a certificate (e.g. a degree) in translation from a university does not necessarily make one a “certified translator”. The reason in this-and I have personally experienced what I am about to describe-is that translators are just like doctors or lawyers who, fresh out of school with the degree in the hand, lack experience, and some may even lack the talent and skills for it; despite having a degree.

This phenomenon is, of course common, in all professions and trades and not limited to translation. There is therefore the need for yet another testing and certification by a professional translation organization (in Ghana that could have been the Ghana Association of Translators and Interpreters-GATI). As in other such international professional translation organizations, the testing could even be by a peer-review mechanism; the association may therefore offer verification of professional competency of its members by a peer review process. In addition, there may be the need for some sort of housemanship like doctors go through; attachment and internship with an experienced translator–be it with an experienced, expert (non-professional) freelancer or with a professional. Just as an orthodox doctor can and does learn from herbalists or traditional healers or bone-setters, so could professional translators also learn from freelancers.

What is a sworn translator?

Sworn translators (and sworn interpreters) swear an oath before the President of the Court of First Instance in of the Republic (in Ghana, that would be the High Court), in order to be able to translate for legal equivalence (i.e. to produce translations that are acceptable by the respective legal jurisdiction). Even if a translator specializes in legal translations or is a lawyer in his/her country, this does not necessarily make him/her a sworn translator. It suffices to put it simply that there are no sworn translators in Ghana. It is very prestigious in other countries to be recognized as a sworn translator; it is like belonging in an exclusive membership similar to the interpreters in IAIC, the very much esteemed higher body of the best interpreters in the world.

Translation Schools in Ghana

Until recent times, there used to be only one translation school in Ghana-the School of Translators (SOT) of the Ghana Institute of Languages (GIL). It was established in 1964 by President Nkrumah in line with his vision for a united Africa, with the objective of training highly qualified translators for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the then nascent OAU and its organs. Lecturers were recruited from France, Spain, Germany, Cameroun and its first Director was even from Geneva. The foundation was laid for a school such as the School of Translators in Geneva, Switzerland. The training was excellent and the students went abroad to France for one year, and then for three months to either Spain or Germany–depending on their language combinations; for linguistic immersion. Initially, the school awarded an internal Diploma, later an external Diploma and now a degree (in affiliation with the University of Ghana). Unfortunately its products have predominantly only been specialized in French, Spanish and a few in German, Arabic, and Russian. Its sister school (the School of Languages-SOL) is at present innovatively offering Portuguese and Chinese and probably soon, Ghanaian languages.

The 1966 overthrow of the Nkrumah regime sounded the death knell of Nkrumah’s vision for the school and the school’s fate till today has been that of total neglect. The year abroad to France, Spain and Germany has been cancelled, and after its initial products had been absorbed by the OAU and other international organizations, its later products did not find employment in their profession. Many, a majority, even diverted into other unrelated fields such as dentistry, accountancy and law or even worked as bilingual employees (not translators) just to have gainful employment. A few were reabsorbed by their Alma Mata GIL, as tutors. Among all the translation agencies present in Ghana, about only one was established by an SOT product. The question may be asked “how many translators from SOT are employed currently at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as translators?” And I would dare say, none! What more the products from other schools? Moreover, which translators travel with the President on his trips abroad or translate/interpret for him here? Certainly not SOT graduates. This certainly has national security implications, especially when nationals of the countries being negotiated with are contracted to work on our behalf. It is this situation that can lead to a Minister signing a document, a binding agreement, in another language, without having any knowledge in that language; all because of the neglect of the SOT.

SOT has had no permanent campus since its establishment, it is still “perched” at the Workers’ College and only relatively recently was granted land by the University of Ghana at Okponglo near the former IPS, on which it has an uncompleted amphitheatre and only a functional administration cum classroom building.

The same UG on whose land they now are has also recently started a translation and interpretation programme; likewise Cape Coast University and KNUST offer such courses, with KNUST offering a PhD in translatology.

A little history of translation in Ghana

The history of translation in Ghana is markedly defined by work based on the Bible by early missionaries and by locals. Later came linguistic work in putting our local languages into writing and compiling dictionaries on local languages. Worthy of note are Johann Christaler Gottlieb, who with the help of two local colleagues (names unknown) translated the Bible into Twi. Also notable are Johannes Zimmermann, who translated the entire Bible into the Gã language in addition to writing a grammar book on Gã, the basis of translation. Carl C. Rheindorf (a great local historian) and Christian Obobi, former pupils of Zimmermann, were certainly translators, since they had to read, understand, write and preach in both the local language and the foreign language of the missionaries. What also generally remains unknown by the general public is the existence in the colonial times, even before slave trade times, of a number of locals who had mastery in the language prevalent and in use at that time, Guinea-Pidgin English. Another less known fact is that there were Muslim scholars at the court of the ancient Asantehene’s who recorded quite a lot (certainly in Arabic) of events, history and laws of the Akan-speaking Ashanti kingdom. These translations in Arabic of (most probably oral) Akan records were unfortunately destroyed in the sackings of Kumasi by the British army on a number of times. These were the first interpreters and probably translators in the territory of present day Ghana.

The present state of affairs

Previously, with the upswing of economic activities in the late 90’s and early-to-mid 2000’s, translators received a lot of work from the travelling public and from importers, but since the beginning of the World Economic Crisis, volumes of translations have fallen drastically. Another blow to translators has also been the cancellation/dispensation with the need to make translations by one or two prominent embassies, for travels to and sojourns in their countries.

In times past, there was a quasi-specialization in specific languages by the translators (whether freelance of professional)- exclusively in languages they either trained in or knew. At present, due to the drastically reduced volumes, many translators in Ghana who previously restricted themselves to their “own language” have been translating languages they hitherto did not dare do. This is partly because web-based translation software makes this possible, but also due to the “man must eat” mentality. The modicum of ethics guiding the industry-which were hitherto even almost non-existent-have been abandoned, morals guiding normal human behaviour have gone to the dogs.

Take for example, a French teacher who is not knowledgeable in romance languages (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Romanian- which are similar to but distinct from French), translating them and even venturing far as afield as into the Germanic (Dutch, German) and Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish). Of course, substandard and sometimes, in parts, gibberish translations would result. The situation described above ensues; as long as the salient details in the translation are clear- e.g. name, date of birth, date of issue, date of divorce etc. – all other information in it is superfluous for the end-users.

For a certain Embassy in Ghana, the substandard translations resulted in it proscribing all translators and then in the embassy selecting only one or two translators to handle documents destined for legalization in that said embassy. This led to many affected translators crying foul, but it is the case of “bad nuts spoiling the soup”. This state of affairs arose because, sadly, the only body (GATI), which could have prevented the development of the present state of affairs in the industry, has for many years been dormant and retrogressive, instead of being vibrant, proactive and progressive.

A saying in German goes “Eine Krähe hackt der anderen kein Augen aus” to wit, birds of the same feather hold together. Thus even though there are other serious “no-nos” bedeviling the sector, they cannot be enumerated here.

Association of Translators

The Ghana Association of Translators and Interpreters (GATI) was established in 1992 before the then Non Aligned Movement (NAM) conference. However it has remained moribund and virtually non-functional for a number of reasons, many of the making of the members themselves.

One reason has been short-sightedness, myopic-mindedness and selfishness and the insistence of maintaining GATI as a “glorified SOT-alumni association” by refusing to open it up to more members; not even to expert freelancers in “non-SOT languages”, e.g. in Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and the like.

Another reason has been the lack of a democratic culture, evidenced by the continued stay in power of an executive elected many, many years ago. The way out may lie in a revamping of the existing association and in the “expansion of the electoral college/membership” or in the formation of a new association altogether. As the old boys and girls of SOT celebrate the launch of their Alumni Association this March, the onus lies on them to use it to reach out to other old boys and girls, wake them up from their antipathy and apathy and pull them back into the fold. The next step would be to learn from the mistakes of the past and forge a strong association that would include graduates from the other translation schools and freelancers. For membership and certification, all must undergo a verification test as well as peer-review for those who cannot pass through verification test-i.e. in “the non-SOT/UG/UCC languages” and they are numerous.

There would be the need also to adhere to international standards such as passing translations through a preliminary translator, a main translator and a translation-reviser; as is done in Universal Translations and Interpretations Agency, resulting in a high accuracy and an almost zero percent complaint or rejection rate over many years. Only through cooperation in such an association can it be possible that one translator reviews the work of another.

Another must would be the need to institute ethics and an ethics committee, having power to sanction any wayward member, just as is done in the Ghana Bar Association or similar bodies. Finally, formal recognition of the certified translators by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Embassies and the Judicial Service/High Courts would have to be sought.

Translation Agencies in Ghana

Before the dawn of the new democratic era in 1992 in Ghana and for a while thereafter, the Transbureau of the Ghana Institute of Languages used to be the main point of call for “all translations”. “All translations” in those days meant quite a limited number of languages-basically French, German, Spanish and Russian, at most. Any other “strange languages” were managed adventurously by a few of the staff. In the course of time, the first private agency opened and then more, including travel and tour agencies doing conferencing arrangements, which handled some translations in-house or by outsourcing them (especially French and Spanish). At present, a check on the internet would show that there are 50-60 translation agencies (some even specializing in local Ghanaian languages); none but two of them is universal, i.e. has the capacity to translate all languages in-house and most resort to outsourcing.

Job chances, future outlook and perspectives

Ghana is developing and would certainly need more and more translators in different languages. Recent developments have shown this, with requests for translations in Hindu, Urdu, Hebrew, and Vietnamese, among others. Just as with the discovery and production of crude-oil in Ghana, people are positioning themselves to take advantage of it by studying petroleum law and the courses related to the petroleum industry, so also would it be beneficial for any young language buff to try to master as many languages as possible in order to stand out from or be able to swim with the competition.

Greek EU multilingual translator Ioannis Ikonomou, for example, is a man who speaks 32 languages fluently and is the Head of the European Commission Translation Office. He is the only translator trusted by the EC, not only to translate classified Chinese documents but also to represent the EC in China. As a result he spends about half the year in China. It is noteworthy that he studied Linguistics for his Bachelor’s, has a Master of Arts in Languages and Cultures and a PhD again in Linguistics. He is therefore not a trained professional translator, but about the best in the field for him to be recognized by the EU as their most trusted translator and Head of all their translators.

Without knowing it, Ghana has such a multilingual in the name of Dr. Kofi Yakpo, the son of one of the SOT’s first products-Dr. Emile Yakpo (with his wife Corinna). Admittedly, he may have German nationality but he certainly is referred to as a Ghanaian-German and we have all the right to be proud of him. He is at present an Assistant Professor in Japan and speaks numerous languages, including Pacific island ones, and researches into languages and cultures. Just like the Greek translator Ioannis Ikonomou, Kofi Yakpo is not a trained translator, but could beat any professionally trained translator hands down.

There are also other SOT products of the “earlier generation” in high places, such as James Arthur with the UNDP, and Ebenezer First-Quao working as a translator revisor at the African Union headquarters in Adis Ababa.

For a prospective translator, translation should not be just a profession but rather a call. The intent of merely getting a degree just to get a job would lead nowhere, since those jobs are at present almost inexistent. Prospective translators must thus be a cut above the rest by, for example, being well read and well informed, as the late Komla Dumor advised in one of his motivational speeches; since only so can one have a good background knowledge to a subject in order to be able to translate it accurately. Moreover, prospective and current translators must look beyond translations and really master their languages in order to be able to supplement their income by doing interpretations. Interpretation is a field which the present developments in software usage can hardly affect negatively, by making humans more and more redundant as it can and has done to the translation sector.

In order to achieve the idealistic, but achievable objectives espoused by President Kwame Nkrumah in becoming a developed nation, more recognition and support must be given to the translation schools in Ghana, especially SOT and all hands must be called on board in the field of translation; all freelancers worthy of their salt and all professionals must unite in order to be able to contribute their quota effectively to the development of Ghana-just as is done wisely in the USA and in the EU. So also should translators lend a hand to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ghana Tourist Board, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre, Ghana Export Promotion Council, the Ghana Standards Board and the Ministry of Trade, all being bodies in which material in foreign languages are certainly handled and would increase to be handled, as we develop as a nation.

The writer, Mr. Kwadzo Oppong Ameko (the CEO of Universal Translation and Interpretation Agency (UTIA) and its sister company Unique African Investments and Projects Consultancy Ltd (UAIPC)) is a polyglot and expert translator -(he speaks among others German, Dutch, French, Spanish, and has taught inter alia Italian, Norwegian, Latin, French and Spanish (concentrating now on teaching only Dutch). He has translated in addition into and from Danish, Swedish, Czech, Ukrainian and other Slavish languages and from Russian, Finnish, Turkish and Greek. He has also translated three books (German/Spanish into English, Portuguese into English and English/Dutch into French). He also speaks fluently local languages such as Gã, Ewe and Akan. A proud product of Rangoon Primary School, Accra High School, Aquinas Secondary School, the University of Leipzig (Germany)-in Veterinary Medicine- and of the GIL (in French and Spanish), he is an avid reader and a former quiz champion and a film buff, as well as an erudite (yet unpublished) poet.


Website: www.

Leave a Reply