Blog Posting

How Translating Documentaries Into Africa’s Local Languages Preserves Them

by Naomi House

How Translating Documentaries Into Africa’s Local Languages Preserves Them

women with instrument 2015

I was watching a wonderful documentary on my local PBS or Create network channel over the weekend that focused on ecological preservation of communities in Ethiopia and Peru, but noticed something very disconcerting.  When the people being interviewed were translated the subtitles said something like “in local language” or “local language” but did not specify the language.  This was a critical cultural failure because language is a contextual experience as well as a tool.  By not taking the time and care to learn and identify it the documentary filmmakers are ensuring that those of us watching along with the English language subtitles will not see the language as something vital to the context of the conversation.  But it is.

This is why the work that Instruments 4 Africa does on its documentaries is in many ways revolutionary – because they know that to truly preserve the musical cultures of Mali in film, they need to do so not only in English but in the local languages.  With dozens of languages commonly-spoken in Mali, translation alone is a significant effort!

Today, Instruments4Africa already has the footage for their next series of documentaries. Paul and his team have used private funding to keep the work going for now, but this temporary fix is not sustainable. We want to help them complete production of these videos so Instruments4Africa can release them to the worldwide public. They need $2,400 per video to cover production, including editing, sound, translation, and subtitles.  Any amount can and does help!

This work is critical to preservation efforts and needs to start now!

More Info


Photo is used with permission and courtesy of Paul Chandler and Instruments 4 Africa

One thought on “How Translating Documentaries Into Africa’s Local Languages Preserves Them

  1. Thank you for raising this issue. Agreed that a minimal starting point is naming African languages.

    Wrt Malian languages, many are closely related enough to be mutually intelligible. Also, as in any country, language speakership, if you will, is in a “long tail” distribution, meaning that some are encountered more frequently than others. See example of Mali at

    Also, have you all considered Same-Language Subtitling for local audiences? Planet Read has been implementing this in India (and a lesser degree so far in parts of Africa) for literacy.

    Keep up the good work!


Leave Comments Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s