Translating into Swahili

Did you know that around 98 million people worldwide speak Swahili as their second language? Swahili has official language status in Tanzania and Kenya and is also widely spoken in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Comoros Islands. It is also spoken by smaller numbers in Burundi, Rwanda, Northern Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

Jean Burke, who learned Swahili from living 12 years in Tanzania, is one of our NAATI accredited Swahili < > English translators and interpreters, with 14 years of experience in this field. In this interview, she shares her tips and challenges about translating into Swahili.

  • How many translation projects have you worked on?

Too many to count! Since the beginning of 2019 until May 2020, I have done 138 English>Swahili jobs and 25 Swahili>English jobs.

  • Do you know how many words you can translate in a year?

I have translated 93,600 words (English>Swahili) and 22,200 (Swahili-English) from 2019 to May 2020. That’s a lot! For revalidation, I need to translate 30,000 words for each direction in 3 years, so I am on track!

  • What are the main challenges of your work as a translator?

The main challenge is to make accurate translations that are readable to as many people as possible, without being able to get immediate feedback about being understood like when interpreting.

  • Any tips how to improve the quality and efficiency of translations?

These days for recent or new words I use online search engines, such as Google.co.tz and Google.co.ke in Swahili, to check which words are used more. I keep many of my translations and collect others too so I can refer to the terms used in them.

  • Are there many variations of Swahili?

There is a Standard Swahili, and many variations between Tanzanian, Kenyan and especially Congolese varieties. Also many Swahili speakers switch between languages like French, Arabic and English.

  • Do you know how old is the Swahili language?

Swahili has changed along the way. Earliest known documents written in Swahili are were letters written 1711 in the Arabic script. Now it is written in the same alphabet that English uses, except there is no x or q.

  • If you had to teach the world ONE word in Swahili, what word would that be?

You probably already know some Swahili, such as safari for trip, and hakuna matata for no worries/problems and simba for lion. A word I especially like is Baraka, which means blessing.