Raising the Bar for Nigerian English: a Professional Translator’s View

English may be the official language of the nation, but there’s still a way to go before Nigerian linguists can match the skills of their counterparts in other countries where the English is a primary mother tongue. On the other hand, Nigerians are well ahead of most other African nations in this regard, but that’s not saying so much. We’ll look at this challenge and consider ways to “raise the bar” of Nigerians who need to communicate abroad, both in English and in translation. We’ll also think about those who want to communicate to Nigerians in their own local mother tongues. We’ll consider various language resources, both professional language service providers, freelancers, and software applications that can assist in this language upgrade.

A Professional Translation Services Perspective on Pidgin English

As a writer and researcher for a translation company, and a world traveler myself, I always find it fascinating to explore the language situation in a new country. Nigeria is in a class of its own!

Consider this: though English is Nigeria’s official language for business, it’s only spoken by maybe 30% of its 200 million people – most of whom speak Pidgin, a dialect that only slightly resembles the English that an English speaker might possibly understand. While Most Nigerians speak a smidgen of Pidgin, the truth is that it has become the “great equalizer” — a way to communicate that cuts across class and gets things done. 

Locals – dem area boys – may make their meaning clear when they call out How bodi? – or How far? – but most of the world will no sabi and will wonder why you are giving them a wahala or pure K-leg. They may think dem sent you to vex for even some wayo – never a good first impression. So Abeg! listen well well to what follows. It may butta ya bread!

Pidgin may work just fine in greater Lagos, but it won’t pass muster – or even get the guys at the next table to pass the mustard – elsewhere in the world.  True, it may stand a better chance of getting your meaning across than the other 521 languages and dialects in use in Nigeria. But Pidgin is for street talk: The use of a more proper professional English is confined to the upper and middle classes, officials and professionals, university graduates. 

Professional Language Services for a Nation of 521 Tongues in a Stew Pot

Outside of Nigeria, it is not generally known that Hausa is primarily the language of the country’s Muslims. Perhaps 20 million people speak Hausa natively while another 6 to 10 million speak it as a second or third language. So that only around 10-15% of the country’s population, and it’s much less familiar to non-Islamic tribes. In second place comes Igbo, with 23 or so million native speakers. Yoruba comes in just third with 20 million mother-tongue speakers. Then there are those who speak Fulfulde, Kanuri, Tiu, Ijaw, Ibibio, and Edo.

For the outside world, this level of linguistic diversity is a shocker. It is, therefore, no wonder that some have simply abandoned any attempt to seriously tackle Nigeria as a market in any language other than English.

So what is a Professional to Do? The Translation Services Options

If you are a Nigerian professional seeking to communicate with the outside world, either by exporting a product or marketing a digital service, selling software or mobile apps, or promoting IT services, this means you may have a problem. To achieve the goals required for any of the above, you need to come across to foreign partners and customers as credible. And Foreign companies entering Nigeria must come to terms with the linguistic complexity as well.

The obvious course of choice, if you have the budget, is to turn to a professional language service provider that knows the Nigerian market as is expert in the nuances of what is Nigerian English. It’s not just a matter of knowing Nigerian English technically or reading a Nigerian newspaper. The translation company of choice needs professional translators and have a professional understanding of Nigeria’s cultural nuances.

What to look for in a translation company? For sure, they should offer quick professional quotations for your service request, turning it around in hours or a max a day or so. It should include a per word rate based on original documents or web pages you supply and a detailed timetable. If you have domestic target languages or source documents, you should make sure the translation agency has mother-tongue Yoruba or Igbo or Hausa talent.

Freelance Professional Translation Services as an Option

This need for local polyglots is, of course, a business opportunity for the bilingual. If you are skilled in one or more of Nigeria’s tribal languages and possess fluency in one or more foreign languages, then you are likely to be a hot prospect to engage with a professional translation services company. They likely are looking for professionals with your talents.

The advantages of working with an agency are professionalism, translation quality and time to market. Another big plus is the ability to easily add languages are your global or local expansion plans increase.

The main disadvantage of an agency is cost: expect to pay a premium of 50% to 200% for working with a translation agency versus a translator. Indeed, you may be able to find local translators though local Nigerian websites and newspapers. But if you are outside Nigeria, you can find translation talent in virtually any language and field of expertise on marketplaces like Upwork, Freelancer.com or Fiverr.

On these sites you can review the profiles, rating, reviews, and portfolios of would-be translators. You can solicit bids from them, interview and negotiate with them directly. That gives you a lot of power, but it’s a time-consuming process, so make sure it’s worth the effort. One tip is to hire two freelancers per language, one to check the work of the other, or to fill in if the other lets you down.

Welcome to the Machine: Translation Services as Software

In recent years, the quality of machine translation has dramatically increased. That is generally a good thing. You can use Google Translate or Microsoft Translator to do research, rough translations, and to help out in customer support. But these tools are still no replacement for a talented human translator, and you should not consider them as a substitute. You should also watch out for the possible use of these tools by the professional translators you hire. It happens a lot, and you should preclude this possibility in your discussions and contracts.

The good news is that the two free online services mentioned do support the top three Nigerian languages, so this can be a valuable “check” tool for you to audit the work of your contractors. And, if you are a freelancer, you can use these tools – judiciously and sparingly – to enrich your vocabulary and to consider alternative ways to express yourself in translation. 

Nigeria was blessed with more than 500 languages, so we may as well make the best of the mix. As is said in Pidgin English: “If life dey show you pepper, my guy make pepper soup!”


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