Thursday, February 9, 2023

Overcoming the Barriers to Multilingual Publishing of Children Books in African Languages - a Guest Post by Christian Elongué (part 2 of 4)

Christian Elongué during a reading workshop at Nungua Methodist School (Ghana), Dec. 2022

There are various reasons why many children’s books are not being published in African languages to any great extent, including historical legacies, the limited number of authors and small reading markets.

a. Authors challenge: choosing between cultural pride and visibility 

The main challenges for authors are three-fold: 

1. the need to understand the ingredients for successful children’s books; 

2. the sensitivity to negotiate the linguistic challenges associated with a newly emergent genre in African languages; 

3. the fear of not being visible globally. Most authors, even though speakers of their mother tongue, prefer to write in official/colonial legacy language in order to get a wider audience.

b. Publishers concerns about publishing in African languages: nexus between business and philanthropy 

Publishers too, argue that, while the most spoken home languages are African languages, there is lower reader demand for African language books, and it is not financially viable for them to publish books in these languages. Books in African languages are mostly educational and very few are purely recreational, meaning that there is a limited number of books in African languages beyond books for schools. 

Additionally, publishing stories and children's books in African languages requires new resources that are different from the existing international languages. For example, the publisher may need to buy additional equipment and software that can handle African signs and symbols. One may think that if publishers published more books in African languages outside the school market, more people would read these texts. But, publishing houses are also businesses and a publisher is more a businessman than a philanthropist. So, a publisher would naturally prefer publishing in a language that is more marketable with a greater potential for return on investments (ROI). Thus, unless a book can be used in schools and a market thus assured, publishers are generally unwilling to undertake its printing. “When a nation’s literature is dependent on prescription for schools in order to survive, the irony of transformation is patent. Clearly there is little or no adult readership ”. There is therefore an urgent need for innovative strategies to create high-quality work in African languages which will remain cheap and accessible. 

c. Parental and readers challenge: Insufficient readership in African indigenous languages

Most African parents would prefer to purchase books for their children in official languages (English, French or Portuguese primarily). They would deliberately not look for multilingual books because they consider official languages as global languages with more privileges and opportunities for their kids. I have many friends who themselves are not able to speak any indigenous languages and neither can their children. Therefore, these parents would naturally not go for books in local languages. For such cases, eBooks and audio formats are convenient to enable such kids and parents to read and hear stories in an indigenous language. In this regard, here is Muna Kalati’s list of 37 apps and platforms proposing children’s books and stories for Africans.  

However, parents must not neglect their responsibility to build that readership interest in local languages and this would take time, hard work, financial risk and commitment. They should remember that the international languages that are widely used today are the product of history, rising out of many then-unknown indigenous languages in their home countries through policy and practice.

d. Other factors influencing multilingual publishing

Libraries are usually understocked, and bookshops are rarely to be found outside the more affluent parts of urban areas which means extra travel costs for those who are far away. 

The major booksellers stock few indigenous language titles, and the majority of books sold are in English. However, in South Africa and Kenya, most bookstores have dedicated Afrikaans and Swahili language sections respectively. 

These are the main challenges limiting the growth of multilingual books for children in Africa. There are also many reasons to remain hopeful when we look at the growing number of initiatives that have sprung up across the continent, in an effort, to bridge language barriers between worlds.1

Initiatives contributing to the publishing of multilingual children books in Africa

In the first part of this article, I presented the main challenges to the publishing of children books in African languages. Now, I will be describing key initiatives that are integrating African languages, encouraging literary translation and celebrating translated children books. 

1. African Storybook

The African Storybook (ASb), is a literacy initiative of the South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE), to address the severe dearth of local language literacy resources for children through the development of openly-licensed literacy materials. The ASb is concerned about providing multilingual, context-appropriate children’s storybooks that can be use to practice reading and develop a love for reading. In this regard, diversity, quantity, accessibility and effective use of these storybooks matter. ASb encourages educators and other literacy promotors to create, translate and adapt storybooks to the practical needs of children. It allows teachers to write children’s books in local language and to learn to teach literacy in local languages. 

2. World Kid Literature

WorldKidLit is a collective of translators who started a blog in 2016, to feature children’s books in translation and sample translations of ones which are not yet published in English but should be. The World Kid Lit month was first launched in 2016 by global literature experts Marcia Lynx Qualey, Lawrence Schimel and Alexandra Büchler to help promote and celebrate literature, whether that be fiction, non-fiction or poetry, that has been translated from other languages into English.

3. Global Literature in Libraries Initiative 

The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative was created by Rachel Hildebrandt in 2016 with the primary goal of bringing more international literature to American library patrons. Today, the project facilitates close collaboration between literary translators, librarians, international literature advocates, publishers, editors, and educators, who are uniquely positioned to help libraries provide support and events to engage readers of all ages in a library framework.

4. Global Digital Library 

The Global Digital Library (GDL) was launched by the Global Book Alliance (GBA), to provide children everywhere with the books and learning materials they need to learn to read and read to learn. GDL is collecting existing, high-quality, open educational reading resources, and makes them available on digital platforms so they can be accessed online and in print format with the long-term goal of facilitating translation and localization of these resources into more than 300 languages. During the launch, the GDL platform had resources in 15 languages, seven of which were Ethiopian. The ASb was one of its main sources, contributing 85 storybooks in Amharic, Afaan Oromo and Tigrigna. The GDL is working with another digital platform, Kolibri, to avail all stories on its offline site. 

5. 1001 Languages project

The children’s charity, the Book Pirates is a world-leading publisher of open-access bilingual picture books in online and physical forms. Their projects generally aim at enabling children and young people to experience literature creatively and independently. More specifically, the 1001 Languages project, consists of the creation of a large database of bilingual picture books written and illustrated by children and for children. Children from across four continents, including Africa, have helped to create these books in over 700 language combinations to choose from, with 75 distinct languages included.

6. Global Storybooks Project

The Global Storybooks project has taken 40 storybooks from the ASb site and created country-specific sites. For example, Storybooks Rwanda, Storybooks Kenya, Storybooks Tanzania, Storybooks South Africa, etc. These specific sites help to make the larger ASb site more visible, therefore making it easier for educators, teachers and librarians to use the storybooks more effectively. 

7. Bakwa Literary Translation Workshops

Since October 2019, Bakwa organised a Literary Translation Workshop in partnership with the University of Bristol where 13 participants were trained by literary translators Ros Schwartz, Georgina Collins, and Edwige Dro. Over the course of the workshop, participants attended a range of practical sessions introducing them to literary translation across genres and forms, as well as more theoretical issues. After the workshop, they were paired with an expert mentor who worked with them for ten weeks to complete a short story translation. The 2021 workshops were co-convened with London Intercollegiate Network for Comparative Studies (LINKS). In 2022, Bakwa Books continue acquiring translation rights of famous African writers, even though, most are not authors of children books

8. In Other Words, by Book Trust

In Other Words was an initiative that encouraged the translation and UK publication of outstanding children's literature from around the world that ran from 2017-2018. UK Book Trust funded a sample translation and synopsis of eight children’s books originally published in other languages besides English. 

9. Midako Publishing 

Midako Publishing produces culturally relevant and inspiring stories that foster creativity, critical thinking and above all love of reading in children. Midako has developed a series of decodable books that uses phonetics rather than strict memorization of the Amharic (Ethiopian) language. For this, it won the African Union’s All African Public Sector Innovation Award in 2018. 

In an increasingly globalized world, our children need an international perspective now more than ever. What better time than now to encourage young children to interact with other cultures and create a publishing environment where shared stories throughout Africa and the world are valued. I firmly believe in the power of words to cross borders and indeed the importance of sharing stories, characters and experiences through the written language.

This is part two of a four part series by Christian. Read part one here.


1 Möller, “The State of Multilingual Publishing in South Africa.”


Ngnaoussi Elongué Cédric Christian is an author in children literature and researcher on African video games. Dismayed by a lack of black characters in books available to African children, Elongué founded in 2017 with the goal of building international recognition for African children’s book authors and increasing access to African children’s books. See Christian's full bio here.

Please note that this author's statements elsewhere regarding the LGBTQ+ community are not in agreement with SCBWI's Statement of Intent on Equity and Inclusion.

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