Six years ago, Mulugeta Mitiku started translating documents for a living. He sheepishly remembers translating ‘bar association’ from English to Amharic as an association of drinking joints. Mulugeta now owns a registered translation business with an office around Stadium (Ras Mekonen St.).
“Translating might be difficult if you don’t have the experience. After six years of experience I can now translate four languages including English, French, Oromifa and Tigrigna without having a degree in any language studies or translation skill training, but short English and French language courses,” he said with pride about his achievements.
Records from all districts at the Addis Abeba Trade Bureau show that 1,567 businesses have been registered to provide translation services.
The Bureau issues a general business licence, without any minimum standard specific ally for traslation service. The general requirements are, an application letter, initial capital, a completed registration form and an office address.
Tigist Melese’s licence, hanging from the wall, reads “typing and translation service”, a generic description given for such services without identifying the number of languages to be translated. She has her office at Yeha City Center, a building found within walking distance from the traditional area of translation offices underneath the Stadium, a.k.a. Stadium Zuria. Hers is one among several that are competing with the traditional businesses.
One cannot help but notice the high number of such offices around Stadium, Ras Mekonnen St. and on Chad St. around Lideta, where the High Court is located. Concentrated in these areas, the translation houses have their own signboards set up, indicating the list of languages they translate.
Yeshi Befikadu is the lady behind the well-known translation office called Yeshimebet Translation Services established more than 50 years ago. She, who is an old woman now, was one of many translators had their offices around Piazza, before being moved by government order to the Stadium area. The fact that there are many translators there does not seem to bother her much.
“We are not affected by the competition. We were here first and we try to meet higher standards,” she claimed. “For this I employ two university graduates on a full time basis.”
It is difficult to get language graduates, she claims, adding that just knowing a language does not make one a good translator. Many of the translation houses share the same translators, with one working on different documents from different houses in the same day.
Few are located away from the concentrated area trying to adopt a different model.
Professional Simultaneous Interpretation & Translation Service (PSITS) is not located in the traditional area. Its office is at Nega Mall, between the Hilton Hotel and UNECA. Samuel Eyob, coordinator and translator, said the company follows a different approach to promote its services. They try to network with clients through their website. The website contains the company’s full information, the founder’s background, the full time employees’ profiles with their photographs and details of the service they provide. His company has different equipment which he uses for live translation.
His employees include former students of Lycee Gebremariam as well as others with language education backgrounds, he told Fortune.
Samuel now has 10 permanent translators 20 freelancers and CV’s of close to 50 individuals from all over the world, whom he can contact whenever the need arises. He is himself an IT graduate from a private college; he has also studied French at the Alliance Ethio Française. He got a licence for the translation service from the Kirkos District in 2001 with capital of 50,000 Br. “Translators need not be language graduates,” he said, “but it would be preferable if they came from diverse fields of education, such as economics, law, and medicine. That helps to tackle technical documents and terminologies.”
His service, however, suffers from lack of qualified people. Language translation being a very sensitive matter, it would have helped if there were translation and interpretation departments at higher education institutions. This concern is shared by Mekonen Lemma, who teaches translation at the Foreign Languages Department of the Addis Abeba University, translating material as well. The field should be well institutionalised and taught to students deeply. Mekonnen sends his students to translation services providers for practice.
“Even though understanding terminologies in different fields of study comes from having the profession, basic language skills in understanding content and comprehension,” he stated. “In addition, educational background should be underlined, Mekonnen added. However, translators around Stadium told Fortune that doing it improves with experience.
“It depends on for whom and why we are translating besides understanding the context,” said Mekonnen, emphasising the need for particularities in translation. “It is a great risk they are taking especially those who translate only with experience.”
His view was shared by Worku Walelegn who translates for seven of these businesses around that area.
“I graduated in general management from Admas University College four years ago but I translate English, French and Oromifa now. It’s not through formal education but developed through experience of informal lessons from my colleagues and also referring to the dictionary,” he explained.
He started with English and Oromifa, adding French later on.
One translator, popular for handling medical documents, graduated in construction 10 years ago. He said most of the businesses around the stadium trust the quality of his translation, enabling him to charge higher for it.
“I translate Somali, Amharic, and English,” he said, requesting anonymity. “Depending on the depth and content of the document, I charge from 50 to 300Br per page.”
The translators do not sign contractual agreements with the translation service providing companies. Rather, they stay available and deliver their services on call. These translators get paid 15 Br to 20 Br per page for local language translation, while payment goes up to 44 Br if a foreign language is involved, or higher for Arabic language.
Tigist, as a licensed operator concurs “Usually Arabic translations cost us more, because the translators are rare. For a single page of Arabic to Amharic or English, we charge 66 Br, including VAT, and we give one-third of it to the translator. For English or Amharic translation to Arabic, we charge 88 Br per page, since the translator will also be responsible for typing it,” said Tigist.
She pays more for the for the translation of medical documents and makes sure the translation is accurate, to avoid the risk of translators missing the context and making different interpretations.
There are also native Chinese people involved in translating Chinese. These translators do not stick around the area, but get called when the business comes.
At Samuel’s business, interpretation is one of the services offered, and for that they charge 400 to 600 dollars per interpreter per day. For written translation, prices vary from 10 to 15 dollars per page.
‘Intervention’, like the ‘bar association’, has been taken out of context and directly translated to mean ‘interference’, says Abraham Moshe, a translator around Piazza, reminiscing on his own experiences.
For most translation offices that Fortune visited, graduating from college is not a requirement to hire the services of a translator. It is enough for applicants to demonstrate they can speak and write in the language and can possibly understand professional terms.
Indeed Reshid Seid, a lawyer and member of Ethiopian Young Lawyers Association, who has been on file for over seven years, also explained that translators in Ethiopia are not organised in skilled manpower, as most of the translations have technical jargon that is crucial in official documents.
Translators do not take criminal responsibility for translations gone wrong, although they could become liable under the civil code if clients claim that they did not get the service they expected for the money they paid, Reshid explained. A translation client at the Stadium area, Yezihalem, who says he is a film producer, has never been disappointed with the services he received.
”They don’t take too much time and they are trustworthy,” he said.
That they translated from experience was no problem to him.
Transition from translator to owner of a translation office may not have a guaranteed success, as Tadesse Ayele discovered. He has been doing translation around Stadium since since 2003. In 2005 he opened his own business at Yeha City Center; in 2007 he closed it. He tried to offer a better and more standardized service, by referring to rules and standards of the American Translation Association. His business, however, failed to thrive.
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