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Afcon 2015: the value of interpreters

Although Equatorial Guinea did not have a lot of time to prepare for hosting Afcon, was there more they could have done? In some ways, the status of interpreting as a service and career could be much improved. As seen in the early 2015 Africa Cup of Nations pre-match press conferences, it seems that the provision of interpreters may not have been a priority for the local organising committee (LOC).  

The 2015 Afcon tournament in Equatorial Guinea recently came to a close. Although there was much excitement for the winners Côte d’Ivoire, and some sadness for supporters of Bafana Bafana and other teams over their early exit, interesting events also occurred off the pitch, with no less than four languages in total being spoken at pre-match press conferences with no interpreters present. At the press conference for Algeria, building up to their group stage match against South Africa, South African journalists were left feeling frustrated as some French and Arabic was spoken. This rendered them unable to report on the comments from the coaches and players. Shakes Mashaba, the Bafana Bafana coach, retaliated in his own pre-match press conference by answering questions in Zulu; it would appear that he was showing solidarity with the South African journalists present. According to Business Day (20 January 2015), the CAF media officer stated at that press conference that the official CAF languages were English and French, and the use of other languages therefore required permission.

These occurrences raise two issues. Firstly, the Africa Cup of Nations is an international sporting event; interpreting services should be a high priority. Secondly, the media officer’s argument is that languages other than French and English cannot be spoken freely. Perhaps I have misunderstood them, or perhaps they did not clearly explain the relevant rule. Nevertheless, based on this interpretation, it seems rather unfair that South Africa should have to receive permission to speak Zulu at a press conference, as Equatorial Guinea’s guests. It is surprising that interpreters were not on standby; South Africa has eleven official languages, which should make it clear to LOCs in other countries that many of our people do not speak English as a first language. Nor should they have to speak English, purely because it is an official CAF language.

After these occurrences, interpreting services were promised for the next press conferences. This can hardly be viewed as acceptable from the LOC, because it raises the question: would interpreters have been hired if no-one had spoken Arabic or Zulu? It seems that the answer is no, because interpreters were hired as a reaction to the incidents. In other words, it appears that interpreting services were not a high priority for the LOC.

When South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010, this presented opportunities for both experienced and less experienced interpreters. Some of the less experienced interpreters (many of whom were based in South Africa) even attended interpreting courses to add to their skills and to be adequately prepared for the tournament. South Africa then hosted the Afcon tournament in 2014, which created further opportunities for local interpreters. Equatorial Guinea could have created similar opportunities, which would have given both local and foreign interpreters high-profile work experience. If interpreting services had been a high priority for the LOC, interpreters could have prepared for Afcon well in advance, in a number of ways, depending on their skill level and experience.

Speaking in the language of one’s choice is a fundamental human right; this does not need to be explained in great detail. The official languages of an international organisation may be fixed in their regulations, but this cannot be upheld at the expense of other languages, which is what has happened at Afcon 2015. As with accommodation, travel, meals and facilities, the language needs of the host nation’s guests should also be respected and prioritised by the LOC.