Volume 15, No. 3 
July 2011

Suh Joseph Che

Front Page

Translation Journal
Translators around the World

The Role of Translation

in the Implementation of Language Policy in Cameroon

by Dr. Suh Joseph Che
University of Buea


This paper examines the role and importance of translation in the implementation and promotion of a language policy that nurtures multilingualism in Cameroon as evident in the use of English and French for State business and the promotion of national languages. It is argued and asserted that translation has a significant role to play in all aspects of language policy in Cameroon as it is used as a tool for the implementation of multilingualism. It is further argued and asserted that translation would play an even greater role in the promotion of Cameroonian national languages if policy makers and translation institutions that design macro-translational paradigms assigned new functions to this essential tool of multilingualism.

ameroon can rightly be considered a mosaic of cultures, peoples and languages that have a common destiny because of their common institutional culture. All these individual components of the Cameroonian polity are linked to one another and for this reason they need a cohesive element to bind them together. Translation can be considered to be that indispensable cohesive element which mediates between the over 280 different Cameroonian ethno-linguistic and cultural groups.

Although not explicitly outlined in any official government instruments, different aspects of Cameroon's language policy show that translation plays a key role in the implementation of official bilingualism and the preservation of Cameroon's national languages as described, analyzed and illustrated below.

Translation can be considered to be that indispensable cohesive element which mediates between the over 280 different Cameroonian ethno-linguistic and cultural groups.
Translation has a significant role to play in all aspects of language policy in Cameroon, some of which are examined in this paper. In the Cameroonian context, translation is considered not merely as a transcoding or transfer process from one language/culture to another but also as an activity that pursues bilingualism and multilingualism as an ultimate objective.

As a result of political unification between the English-speaking and French-speaking parts of Cameroon in October 1961 Cameroon adopted English and French, the languages of her former colonial powers, as the official languages of the country. Law No. 96/06 of 18 January 1996 provides that the two official languages (English and French) shall enjoy the same status and privileges: "The official languages of the Republic of Cameroon shall be English and French, both languages having the same status. The State shall guarantee the promotion of bilingualism throughout the country. It shall endeavor to protect and promote national languages" (cf. Part I, Section I (3) of Law No. 96/06 above). The obvious question therefore is, how instrumental is translation in fostering these ideals?

In a bilingual or multilingual polity any translation endeavor can be considered an attempt to carry out a language planning activity given that translation always intervenes in a system as a means of solving language problems. With reference to the Cameroonian context, this paper examines how translation is instrumental in resolving language problems with respect to some aspects of language planning at certain levels.

The first aspect examined here is status planning. Translation as status planning seeks to assign a prestigious status to languages, managing power relations between ethno-linguistic communities within a society, respecting citizens' linguistic rights, and ensuring intercommunity communication.

Once a language is chosen for translation, either as a source language or a target language, it acquires a new status if it did not already have such status. Or it reinforces the prestige it had already won. For instance, in Cameroon, the translation from or into some national languages such as Ewondo, Mungaka, Bulu, Basa'a, Duala, Fufuldé, etc., enabled these languages to gain some prestige within the country and abroad. As a result, the US Embassy in Cameroon sponsored a translation project, conducted by the Cameroon League for Human Rights (CLHR) which aspired to put the Electoral Code at the disposal of some local communities. On 16 July 2004 the translated texts into Ewondo, Bulu, Basa'a, etc., were presented to the public at the Conference Center in Yaounde, Cameroon.

In some Cameroonian courts, assessors when interpreting (i.e. doing oral translation) for national language speakers summoned for litigations, can be considered to address sociolinguistic problems. For example, in this context translation bridges the gap between the powerful magistrates and the powerless illiterate litigators. In a multilingual polity like Cameroon, it is translation that ensures that citizens' linguistic rights are respected as provided for by international conventions such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted in 1992, and the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights adopted in Barcelona in 1996.

The second aspect in which translation intervenes in Cameroon is internal language planning. Internal language planning aims at graphizing, modernizing and standardizing a chosen national language. In Cameroon, therefore, translation serves the purpose of internal language planning by fostering the creation and use of a writing system, sustaining terminological development, and establishing linguistic norms for the standard variety of the chosen national language.

Languages with a writing system should have an alphabet which enables speakers and users of the languages to write it while complying with writing norms such as marking lexical and syntactic units, respecting punctuation rules, and complying with lexical standards. It is worth noting that languages which enter literacy as a result of emulating other languages with long writing traditions have recourse to translation for setting their orthography. This is because the first pieces of written discourse by these languages are translated texts. Instances of this can be observed in works done with Bible translation in Cameroon. National languages such as Ewondo, Mungaka, Isubu, Duala, Bulu, Fufulde, etc., had their orthography fixed in the Scriptures through translation. It is therefore logical to state that the translation process achieves graphization.

As Ndongo Semengue (1981) rightly observes, in a globalized world boundaries are no longer effective because ideas cross cultural and linguistic barriers in real time. Thus, languages should undergo modernization through terminological development. To bridge the communication gap between world views expressed by different languages, translation resorts to some techniques like lexical calque and borrowing. In this regard, Cameroonian languages have witnessed the introduction of new terms which are foreign or coined and which have enriched their lexicon.

Tabi-Manga (2000), while complaining about the lexico-semantic voids or terminological underdevelopment that hamper the promotion of Cameroonian national languages expected translation to fill the gap by creating cross-cultural and interlinguistic equivalents. Once an equivalent has emerged, other lexical forms can naturally be derived from the translated model. Subsequently, language modernization takes place thanks to translation.

According to Ferguson's (1968) classification, the last stage of internal language planning is standardization. Sloka Ray (1963: 24) posits that "The operation of standardization consists basically of two steps: firstly, the creation of a model for imitation and secondly, promotion of this model over rival models." These two steps aim at providing for rules that will sustain the standard variety. The best way of ensuring the survival of a model is by fostering its emergence. Translation allows for the emergence of literature in national languages. This literature is made available to the general public for emulation, and to language scholars for description and prescription.

This situation has also been observed in other countries like Germany. Jean Delisle and Judith Woodsword (1995: 50) thus write about Luther's contribution to the enrichment of German as follows:

"Through his translation of the Bible, Luther helped bring about the enrichment and standardization of the German lexicon, the development of a balanced syntax using formal means such as verb position and conjunctions as well as the capitalization of nouns. His main contribution, however, is in the field of stylistics. Clarity, general understandability, simplicity and vividness were the most important stylistic features of his translation of the Bible which even today serves as a model for good writing."

In Cameroon, Jean-Marie Essono (2000) wrote an authoritative book on Ewondo as a contribution to the debate over language policy and, specifically, standardization of national languages.

As a decision-making process, translation favors some linguistic forms and rules, and rejects others. For this reason, it can be said that all written pieces of discourse are prescriptive and so is translation. Anything that prescribes brings out planning. Translation, therefore, can be considered to contribute to Cameroon's language planning policy.

In Cameroon, the third aspect in which translation intervenes is with respect to linguistic equality. Cameroon's official bilingualism compels her to exercise linguistic equality as one of the necessary ingredients of language policy which is implemented through translation. This equality between the country's two official languages (English and French) is enshrined in the 1996 Constitution (cf. Law No. 96-06 of 18 January 1996 cited above). According to the provisions of the Constitution, both languages enjoy "the same status." That is why when a government instrument or official document is enacted or issued in one of the official languages it is translated into the other official language and both versions are published in the Official Gazette for public consumption. It is worth noting that the translated version is considered authentic in the same stead as the original version.

Another aspect of language policy in Cameroon in which translation intervenes is Language Maintenance and Promotion. In the 15th Century, the father of Reformation and main architect of the development of the German language, Martin Luther (1483-1546) considered translation and germanization to be synonymous words. By positing this axiom, Luther bore in mind the prominent role of translation in the processes of preservation and promotion of linguistic heritage.

In Cameroon, this function of translation is noticeable when the translation of national languages is examined. Very often, language maintenance is associated with the notion of language death or extinction. Cameroonian languages can be held as endangered or dying languages with respect to Crystal's (2000:138) insights about the dying processes of languages. These processes include: a kind of bilingualism tending towards a dominant language, monolingualism and a snobbish attitude shown by younger generations and some parents towards their mother tongue or national languages. The last two stages of the dying process match the Cameroonian context.

As a remedy to this threat, Crystal (2000: 138) posits that "Once a language passes the stage where it can be transmitted between generations as the first language of the home, its future is vastly more ensured if it can be written down." In Cameroon, translation as an interlinguistic process through a written code plays a major role in stabilizing the decline of national languages and harnessing or fashioning the endangered languages for modern use.

Translation stabilizes linguistic deterioration by fixing the writing system of languages. This is evident in the works of Christian missionaries in Cameroon. The approach adopted by language planners during either the colonial period or post-independence era consisted of setting up an alphabet as the initial stage, then developing orthography through translation. As from the 1970s, another stage was inserted between the two; it includes the compiling of a spelling book. In effect, Cameroonian languages which have undergone planning have translation products as their first ever written documents. Such languages include Duala, Isubu, Mungaka, Ewondo, Bulu, and many others, as these were used for the translation of the Scriptures.

Also, translation creates and fosters literacy vitality. Most African languages in general and the Cameroonian languages in particular are newly written tongues with no literate tradition. Very often, translation products (i.e. translated materials) are the first written pieces of discourse of Cameroonian languages, thereby giving these languages access to the literacy world. Most of Cameroon's newly written languages can only boast of mainly religious literature and translated materials of their folklore as a sign of their literacy vitality.

In Cameroon, the greatest impact of translation on the reversal of language decline is linguistic sustenance through enrichment and standardization processes. Concerning Cameroonian languages, translation in general and Biblical translation in particular has often set up the norms of usage of the written language. Translation of the Scriptures brings in new notions, concepts and realities alien to indigenous Cameroonian cultures, notwithstanding the efforts of naturalization made by Church translators and missionaries.

This inflow of alien representation of the world into the national languages causes their lexicon to become richer and varied. The late Professor Prosper Abega, in an article entitled "Langues africaines et développement" [African Languages and Development] (my translation) and published in Abbia (Nos. 27-28, June 1974), discussed morphological patterning of abstract words in the Beti-Fang linguistic continuum. His work on word formation was based on Reverend Father Theodore Tsala's dictionary published in 1940 whose entries derived from biblical translations.

Most dictionaries available in the Cameroonian languages are written in either French or English and the national language involved. Some of the bilingual dictionaries include the French-Gbaya, French-Basa'a, French-Ewondo, and French-Tunen, among others. As it can be observed, all these dictionaries are bilingual. Recently, Essono (2000) did a research on a Beti language: L'Ewondo: langue bantu du Cameroon: phonologie-morphologie-syntaxe [Ewondo: Cameroon Bantu Language: Phonology-Morphology-Syntax] (my translation). Some of his descriptions are based on translated texts into Ewondo. It appears, therefore, that translation fosters the development of the Cameroonian languages and lays down principles for their standard varieties.

It should be noted, however, that translation is a double-edged sword as it can either promote or threaten national languages. When translation is carried out from official languages into national languages, it plays an important role in fostering the enrichment of the national languages. However, when translation takes place from national languages into official languages, it can be considered to constitute a tool of cultural assimilation that may threaten the survival of the national languages in the long run.

The last aspect examined in this paper where translation can be considered to intervene in language policy in Cameroon is what could be referred to as language-in-education. This paper will look at the teaching of the country's official languages (English and French) in schools, the teaching of other foreign languages and finally the teaching of national languages in these schools.

In Cameroon, language teaching in formal settings tops the language planners' agenda. It should be underscored that along with the two official languages, Cameroon's educational system makes use of other languages, both foreign and national.

With respect to fostering official bilingualism, in the Cameroonian educational system, most children start education in their parents' first official language (OL1). Even in bilingual schools, pupils still need their first official language which has enabled them to acquire knowledge and adapt to their school environment. They develop cognition in their first official language (OL1). By practicing translating processes (even in a simplified form), the pupils develop not only writing skills but also thinking ones. In order to assess the learners' understanding of their first official language, teachers and trainers use translation because it enables assessment of the mastery learners have of the two languages. The translation exercises are regarded as being, at once, a means of instruction, practice and assessment. Competence in the second official language (OL2) is measured by the accuracy of the lexical and grammatical equivalence attained through translation.

In 1988, Kateu Jacques documented the use of translation as a tool for the assessment of Anglophones' mastery of French in Cameroonian secondary schools. His sample consisted of past questions of the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination (Ordinary and Advanced Levels). It is observed that today the use of translation for assessment of second language skills in official examinations has not changed. This is also observable with other languages such as Spanish and German taught in some Cameroonian schools. The use of this indirect method is cherished not only as a matter of expediency in that translation is often the quickest and most efficient method to explain the meaning of a new word, but also for aiding language acquisition. Furthermore, translation develops language accuracy because one of the virtues of translation as an exercise is that the learner who is constrained by the original text cannot resort to avoidance strategies but is obliged to confront areas of the second language (L2) system which he/she may find difficult.

In Cameroon, curriculums and syllabuses make room for translation when it comes to second language teaching. When they do not, teachers will still resort to it to pursue their goals. Translation is thus a strategy of second language teaching. For this reason, it can be said that it fosters individual bilingualism. Furthermore, in Cameroon the training of civil servants in linguistic centers across the country falls in line with the government's language policy of official bilingualism. In some rural areas, teachers are obliged to use translation for their teaching of school subjects because the pupils lack cognition in the first official language (OL1). Their cognitive development is shaped by their mother tongue, thus obliging teachers to use the national language of the area of education.

In short, translation improves on the bilingualism of young Cameroonians as it is used by second official language (OL2) trainers for the teaching of the official languages and for the assessment of their mastery of the said languages. It can thus be said that translation definitely promotes the mastery of the official languages. It is also used in the teaching of other languages.

In the Cameroonian educational system, there are numerous other foreign languages taught in government and private schools, some of which include Spanish, German, Italian, Latin, Arabic, Chinese, etc. It is worth mentioning that the teaching of all these languages makes use of translation and students are expected to show their command of the acquired language by translating either from or into one of the official languages. The teaching of these languages includes grammar, composition, comprehension and translation.

With respect to the teaching of Cameroonian national languages, according to Tadadjeu (1998), teaching programs carried out within the framework of PROPELCA (Programme de Recherche Opérationnelle pour l'Enseignement des Langues Camerounaises) experimental teaching and NACALCO (National Association of Cameroonian Language Committees) literacy faced the challenges of translation and interpretation. They resorted to translation/interpretation for two different purposes: improving the learner's language skills and designing teaching materials and textbooks. Tadadjeu (1998) substantiated his views as follows:

Cet enseignement dès ses débuts a été confronté au problème de traduction et d'interprétation. En effet, l'utilisation des langues maternelles comme medium d'instruction donne lieu à la manipulation des concepts aussi bien traditionnels que non-traditionnels liés aux connaissances scientifiques à faire acquérir, à la vie contemporaine, à l'environnement des apprenants et aux besoins de communication et d'information des groupes-cibles. C'est pourquoi la traduction occupe une place très importante dans les activités de l'ANACLAC qui, à travers ses comités de langues membres, promeut l'enseignement des langues camerounaises à l'école et leur utilisation pour l'éducation non-formelle des adultes et des jeunes éjectés de l'école. (APTIC Round Table, Yaounde Conference Hall, April 24-25, 1998) [Right from the outset this language instruction was confronted with the problem of translation and interpretation. In effect, the use of mother tongues (i.e. national languages) as medium of instruction involves the manipulation of both local and foreign concepts relating to the scientific knowledge to be acquired, contemporary life, learners' environment as well as communication and information needs of the target groups. That is why translation is very important in the activities of ANACLAC which, through the language committees concerned, promotes the teaching of Cameroonian national languages in school and their use in informal education of adults and youths who have dropped out of school] (my translation).

Within PROPELCA and NACALCO frameworks, teaching is done in two languages (an official language 1 (OL1) and a national language (NL). The languages are used either simultaneously or in succession thanks to interpretation (oral translation) for language classes. Translation is used for explanations in nursery I and II and first classes of primary education (classes I, II, III and IV). According to Tadadjeu,  L'usage de deux langues, première langue officielle (OL1) et langue nationale (NL) simultanément ou successivement à l'oral est considéré comme une bonne chose, pédagogiquement parlant  [The use of two languages, first official language (OL1) and national language (NL), simultaneously or successively, is considered pedagogically good] (my translation). Translation is thus central to teaching and learning of national languages.

With respect to syllabus design, following the recommendations of the 1985 National Forum on Education held in Yaounde, Cameroon, national languages are expected to be introduced in the education system. Language planners in charge of producing teaching materials resort to translation for that purpose. Literacy in Cameroonian languages is gaining ground among the citizens. This is possible thanks to NACALCO's efforts to produce teaching documents and textbooks for fighting against illiteracy. This philanthropic organization collaborates with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) for this huge task.

Still according to Tadadjeu (1998), production of materials for literacy is first of all done in one official Cameroonian language before being translated into the different national languages of the literacy program. While discussing the purpose of translation within the framework of the fight against illiteracy carried out by PROPELCA and NACALCO, Tadadjeu emphasized its instrumental role in the production of teaching materials:

Le matériel didactique qui soutend ce modèle est aussi bilingue : c'est ainsi que toutes les publications, syllabaires en langues maternelles, post-syllabaires, calcul, etc. ... sont bilingues, en ce sens que tous les textes (et questions/instructions) sont traduits en première langue officielle (LO1). Le but de cette traduction est la facilitation de l'accès au contenu en langue maternelle (ML) aux non locuteurs et l'harmonisation des programmes par une évaluation générale des objectifs communs fixés. La traduction est faite par les membres des Comités de Langues (CL), auteurs des textes et desdites publications. (APTIC Round Table. Yaounde Conference Hall, April 24-25, 1998) [The didactic material that is used within this framework is also bilingual: all publications, primers in the national languages, post-primers, arithmetic, etc. are bilingual in that all the texts (questions/instructions) are translated into the first official language (OL1). The purpose of the translation is to enable non speakers of the national language to easily understand the content of the material in the national language. Another purpose of the translation is to facilitate the harmonization of programmes through general evaluation of the common set objectives. The translation is done by members of the language committees who are authors of the texts and publications.] (My translation) Thus, in Cameroon translation serves an educational purpose by fostering literacy and numeracy, particularly by making teaching materials available. It is worth noting that it is difficult to have a good command of a language when the learner does not master literacy and numeracy skills. Cameroon's language policy, including the teaching of national languages and design of syllabuses, resorts to translation in order to fight against illiteracy.

In conclusion, this paper has clearly shown how translation intervenes in the following aspects of language policy in Cameroon: status planning; internal language planning at the levels of graphization, modernization and standardization; linguistic equality; language maintenance and promotion; creation and fostering of literacy vitality; reversal of linguistic decline; the teaching of official languages; the teaching of other foreign languages; the teaching of national languages; curriculum and syllabus design; etc. That is why it is advocated here that, in the Cameroonian context, apart from the primary role of bridging a communication gap by transferring messages from one official language to another, translation should be assigned new functions and be made to play an even greater role with policy makers and translation institutions that design macro-translational paradigms.


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Tsanga Ada, Didier (2004), Translation and language Policy in Cameroon, Unpublished M.A. Thesis, ASTI, University of Buea.