Delegates from around the world joined senior officials of the United Nations, the African Development Bank, the European Union and representatives of the Brussels-based African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States on Monday for the first pan-African conference on the training of translators and interpreters.
In opening remarks, the Director General of the United Nations Office in Nairobi, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, lamented the lack of suitably qualified language staff in Africa and the difficulties encountered by aspiring African translators and interpreters trying to get specialized training outside the continent.
“This imbalance is highlighted … through the example of the Geneva-based International Association of Conference Translators (AITC), which, with a membership of approximately 450 translators, records only four of them as having their professional domicile in Africa,” she said.
She added that the last ten years have seen a shift in the market, with fewer qualified language staff available to an ever increasing number of international organizations.
“Supply has not kept pace with demand. All of us have experienced challenges in meeting our demands in the areas of translation and interpretation and certainly, the problem has been felt more acutely in Africa,” she said.
Kenyan Assistant Minister for Higher Education, Mr. Kilemi Mwiria noted the importance of qualified translators and interpreters in Africa, saying a single word could easily spell the difference between war and peace.
Mr. Shaaban M. Shaaban, the UN Under-Secretary-General in charge of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management said the project was part of the department’s outreach to universities, aimed at increasing the number of experts in important language combinations.
He added that he had signed agreements with a number of universities, including Westminster and Bath (UK), St. Petersburg in Russia, Beijing and Shanghai in China, and Salamanca in Spain, to establish a structured cooperation in training interpreters and translators.
Mr. Leonard Orban, the European Union Commissioner on Multilingualism said the Commission had established contact with the African Union, to enhance exchange of best practices, especially with regard to the European Masters Degree programme in conference interpretation and translation being pursued with a wide network of European universities.
“We will support this initiative so that Africa is able to produce its own language specialists instead of importing them,” he said.
Mr. Donald Kaberuka, the African Development Bank President said in a message read on his behalf that the bank was ready to take the lead as the main sponsor of the project, tapping into over 40 years of experience in putting together educational and multinational projects, and that the bank would facilitate an economic and market analysis of the project.
Mr. Kaberuka however said the project needed to be reviewed by the bank’s experts and partners, adding that the proposed starting date of October 2009 was premature.
“Projects like this involving a multiplicity of partners take time and the bank has a formal project review process which includes several steps. The bank believes that we must design a project that will endure, rather than one that will be constrained by short-term contingencies,” he said.
The bank also called for the inclusion of French speaking universities, which were missing in the initial list of proposed nucleus of universities identified as possible members of the consortium that would undertake the project.
The three-day conference will feature workshops on the four major themes: Translation, conference interpretation, public service interpretation and e-learning. The conference also intends to give time to discussions on the more practical aspects of the initiative such as funding, training of trainers and location of the initial programmes.
The aim of the programme is to provide, at the local level, enhanced training for language professionals who are unable to travel abroad for it. Local institutions should also assist to bring the qualifications of their language students to be at par with their internationally-based counterparts. Organizers hope that the first Masters programmes in Africa will be launched in the near future.