AFRICAN STUDY: African Language Publishing For Children In South Africa

The commitment to multilingualism embedded in the 1996 South African Constitution has wide ranging implications for many aspects of education. This African study focuses on the dearth of teaching and learning materials in African languages required to deliver effective bilingual education, and on the potential role of translation in offering solutions for this problem.

By Viv Edwards & Jacob Marriote Ngwaru (For educational purpose)  

Drawing on an analysis of currently available African language books for children and interviews with educators, writers, publishers, translators and organisations concerned with book promotion, this study explores issues which have emerged as critical for both the quality and availability of translation. Attention is drawn to the ways in which translation can be perceived to either help or hinder the process of introducing children to reading materials in African languages.

African language publishing in South Africa has been the subject of some controversy in recent years. Public figures such as Pallo Jordan when Minister of Arts and Culture have been highly critical of the lack of vision and commitment of the publishing industry; publishers, for their part, have countered by producing catalogues which showcase their African language materials.

This report offers an independent perspective on the state of African language publishing for children in South Africa today based on an analysis of current resources. It synthesizes the views of key players in the book value chain on both opportunities for and obstacles to further development. Download the PDF version of the full study here: “African Language Publishing For Children: Where Next?

children’s literature in African languages (African Studies)

The emergence of children’s literature in African languages is a work in progress.

The extent of African language publishing in South Africa

The main sources of information on African publishing for children are the PASA (2007) Writing in Nine Tongues catalogue and the 2008 and 2009 supplements, which together list some 5000 titles, and the 2008 Department of Arts and Culture Catalogue of South African Literature which includes almost 4000 African language titles. The higher profile of African languages achieved by these catalogues is to be applauded. Their publication marks an important first step in providing centralised sources of information for education departments, teachers, librarians and bookshops. The catalogues can also be used to help publishers and policy makers identify potential gaps in provision.

Closer examination, however, suggests that African language publishing is not as vibrant as it might first appear and the amount of material is often limited, even in the more widely spoken languages. In addition, aspects of the organization of the catalogues limit their usefulness. Arguments are made for the standardisation of age bands and genres, and for publishers to submit information on resources to an online database, thus increasing accuracy and reducing costs.

Our analysis raises a number of issues for publishers and policy makers, including the dearth of materials for very young children and huge variations in the numbers of books available for speakers of different African languages.

The schools market

Education is by far the most important market sector for publishers: most orders come from education departments, Section 20 schools with the authority to make purchases, libraries and NGOs involved in book distribution.

Imbalance between textbooks and supplementary reading materials Textbooks remain the main learning resources. At foundation level, they usually take the form of readers. With older children, the main market is for set texts as part of the African literature curriculum.

However, reflecting international developments in pedagogy, a growing number of ‘real books’, also sometimes known as ‘supplementary reading materials’, are found alongside textbooks. The sales of set books and readers cross‐subsidize other kinds of publishing.

Education policy

One of the major obstacles to the expansion of African language publishing for the schools market is the failure to implement the language‐in‐education policy. At the international level, the arguments for mother‐tongue based bilingual education are well rehearsed: students who have a sound foundation in the mother tongue participate more actively, feel more confident about their learning and outperform peers who operate only through the medium of a second language. While language‐in‐education policy in South Africa is supportive of this policy, the rate of implementation is extremely slow and, in the absence of bilingual provision, parents veer to education in English, the language of highest status.

A further consequence is that publishers are reluctant to invest without a market‐spend large enough to make African language publishing viable. The absence of teaching materials in turn affects the willingness of teachers to use African languages as the medium of instruction.

Challenges for small publishers

Financial institutions often fail to appreciate the seasonal nature of educational publishing, whereby most orders are received and processed in just four or five months of the year. The length of time required for a return on investment – up to two years – is also problematic. Access to capital to ensure cash flow is an important issue for smaller companies servicing the schools market, with implications for marketing, distribution and compliance with complex procurement procedures.

Publishers able to place copies in the hands of those making choices are likely to do best. There are two main ways of marketing to schools – through visits from the sales team and through the mailing of sample copies to schools with postal addresses. Because marketing is capital intensive, small publishers inevitably find themselves at a disadvantage in both cases.

Large companies often have regional distribution centres or are able to take advantage of vertical integration, calling on specialist sister companies. Small publishers experience difficulties in servicing schools in rural areas responsible for buying their own materials when small numbers of books have to be delivered across large areas.

Complaints about the book procurement process are widespread in the industry but small companies are affected disproportionately. Responsibility for procurement has been divided between provincial and national levels. The process has been complicated by the fact that different provinces operate different systems. Calls for submissions are costly and come at different times, making it difficult to respond. There is a good deal of support for shifting responsibility from the provinces to the national level, providing that this process is both robust and transparent.

The trade market

The current book buying public of South Africa is estimated to be 50,000 out of a total population of 48 million people. Increasing this constituency by even a modest proportion would be highly advantageous for the book value chain; it would also make it possible to reduce the price of books to more realistic levels. Blue skies thinking about ways of expanding the trade market may offer a way out of the current impasse in which publishers complain that booksellers do not stock African language books and booksellers counter that this is because they do not sell.

There are many indications in fact that Africans do read when the content is affordable, accessible and of interest. Isolezwe, the daily Zulu newspaper in Durban, for instance, has a circulation of more than 95,000, outperforming the English‐language dailies from the same publisher. The issue, it would seem, is relevance and there is undoubtedly a need to explore genres and themes that speak to a much broader range of interests. Publishers therefore need to look critically at the limitations of current approaches, paying particular attention to content, alternative ways of reaching untapped markets and pricing strategies.

Bookazines for the young adult market currently not catered for and highly illustrated, comic style short stories aimed at newly independent readers are just two examples of recent initiatives aimed at making low price books available through reading clubs and door‐to‐door sales to people who don’t visit bookshops.

Other challenges for publishers

Some challenges apply specifically to children’s publishing irrespective of language; others – including the development of writers and translation – apply specifically to African language publishing.

Developing writers

Very few African authors write in their first languages and manuscripts submitted to publishers are usually in English. They tend to target older readers and are often of very poor quality. Publishers, then, need to nurture potential authors. Empowerment deals offer one source of support; other strategies include competitions, workshops, mentorship and grants.

The role of translation

Translation has emerged as a controversial issue in South Africa. Some people feel that it is detrimental to the development of original literature in African languages; others feel that it is a valuable form of cultural sharing with the potential to greatly increase the amount of reading materials in African languages with minimal effort.

By analyzing a sample of the books currently available it was possible to show that a large proportion were in fact originated in African languages, and that most of the translations are targeted at the early childhood market. This would suggest that concerns about the negative impact on original writing in African languages are ill founded.

Translators working in this field need not only to be proficient linguists but also to have an in depth knowledge of what makes a successful book for children. There is a serious shortage of people with the relevant breadth of experience. Because African languages are still in the process of standardization, translation is more challenging: translators working with European languages are expected to average roughly 2,500 words per day; the norm for African languages is less than half this number. Although it will require time to develop the relevant expertise, advances in IT (Information Technology) will help to shorten the process.

Because the translation of children’s books into African languages is a very recent development, people are inevitably feeling their way. Good translations are often the result of teamwork and negotiation.

However, the need within African cultures to show respect to elders, sometimes poses problems when junior members of a team feel unable to disagree with more senior colleagues. There is often a reluctance to accept that translation is a process of trial and error and – as has been the case in Afrikaans and many other languages – that it will require time to develop the relevant expertise.

High turnover publishers tend to send texts for translation to specialist agencies. Low turnover publishers and NGOs sometimes handle translation in house if they are working with a small number of languages with which they are familiar; increasingly, however, this work is outsourced. One of the advantages of agency translation is the anonymity of translators, editors and proofreaders who work independently, making it possible to by‐pass issues of respect for elders and disagreements within a

Various co‐publishing initiatives involving different languages have demonstrated that, by combining orders, larger print runs are able to achieve impressive economies of scale. Why, then, are South African publishers failing to fully exploit translation as a means of rapidly increasing the volume of African language literature available for children?

Decisions about which languages to translate are driven by potential sales. Most books are translated into isiXhosa, isiZulu and Afrikaans; smaller languages such as isiNdebele and Tshivenda are frequently overlooked. The same educational rationale for making languages available in the larger languages, however, applies to these smaller languages, raising issue of equality of opportunity.

Some publishers explain their reluctance to expand across all the official languages in terms of frustrations around authors and translation. Others feel that this is simply an excuse and take a more strategic view. As part of their commitment of multilingual publishing, they prepare camera‐ready versions in a range of languages ready to submit for approval and promotional purposes while minimizing risk by printing only when the orders come through.

Ways forward

The slow start in the implementation of mother‐tongue‐based bilingual education has had a serious effect on the willingness risk‐averse publishers to produce African language materials. Although some high turnover publishers have responded to the perceived market for readers and set texts in all the official languages, other kinds of books have been produced in the main for the larger isiZulu and isiXhosa markets. This has repercussions for equality of opportunity for the children from these groups.

The gradual introduction of bilingual education would not only help to achieve improved educational outcomes but would also provide an invaluable boost for the book value chain.

Publishers need to move beyond their very heavy dependence on the schools market to explore ways of producing books with content of interest to those who do not read for pleasure and ways of reaching them at prices they can afford. The blue skies thinking of some new entrants to the industry points to the potential of methods such as direct marketing through book clubs and door‐to‐door sales and distribution via magazine outlets.

High turnover companies have been slow to recognize that the promotion of African languages is an effective way of implementing affirmative action within the framework of BEE. Some companies are already involved in the mentoring of writers and illustrators, either on an informal basis or as part of empowerment deals. Others have the potential to contribute through the mentoring of smaller competitors in areas such as marketing. Workshops offered by the South African Book Development Council (SABDC) on various topics of interest to SMEs provide a useful framework for moving forward.

There is a temptation for publishers to use the very real challenges for writers and translators as an excuse for limiting still further their exposure to risk‐taking around African language publishing. This attitude overlooks the fact that both the standardization of English and Afrikaans and the development of children’s literature in these languages have taken place over long periods of time. It also fails to recognize that the emergence of children’s literature in African languages is a work in progress and that the first steps in resolving problems have already been taken.

Download the full study by Viv Edwards & Jacob Marriote Ngwaru here: African Language Publishing For Children: Where Next? (PDF)



According to Wikipedia, African studies is the study of Africa, especially the cultures and societies of Africa. The field includes the study of the culture of Africa, history of Africa (Pre-colonial, colonisation of Africa, decolonization of Africa), anthropology of Africa (ethnic groups in Africa, demographics of Africa), politics of Africa, economy of Africa (poverty in Africa), languages of Africa, and religion in Africa (African traditional religion). A specialist in African studies is often referred to as an “Africanist”. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *