Doing Business in South Africa’s

The right translation for companies wanting to internationalise

The best way to reach a market is to speak its language and know its culture. It’s knowing that the people listening to us feel we belong to their world in order to inspire acceptance and feedback.

Let’s take South Africa as an example of how important this factor is. It has 60 million people, cultural diversity, matchless geography, natural resources, breathtaking landscapes and a powerful, dynamic economy. It is therefore not surprising that many companies looking for global expansion want to set up shop in South Africa. Nonetheless, before taking this step they have to take into account the multicultural nature of this large country, which has a number of official languages.

Your business will always need language services in this highly diverse setting. So here is some advice.

Find out about South Africa’s cultural diversity

There are 11 official languages in South Africa: Zulu (the most spoken language, with 22.7% native speakers), Xhosa (16%), Afrikaans (a variant of Dutch, 13%), English (10%) and the minority languages Ndebele, Sotho, North Sotho, Swazi, Tsongo, Tswana and Venda.

This has consequences. Even if you already work with local partners, the variety of target audiences and languages will be such that you will not be able to move forward without translation, interpretation and localisation services. Moreover, each of these populations has its own cultural and socio-economic characteristics.

Don’t forget that South African English is not quite the same!

It’s true that you’re going to be using English a lot of the time. It is the most common language in local businesses, for historical reasons (South Africa was part of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries) and because today it is a global language. But you must remember that South African English has its own characteristics:

  • Spelling follows British English rules, though there is some American vocabulary.
  • The influence of other local languages, such as Afrikaans, has resulted in colloquial expressions such as “braai”, which means barbecue.
  • This is also reflected in people’s pronunciation, though it is still perfectly understandable to any English speaker.


Look for companies with native translators

The translators and interpreters working for you must be familiar with this multicultural setting. The same applies to software localisation, online presence, digital services and advertising campaigns. Each segment of South African society has its own cultural sensitivities, traditions, buying habits and communication rules. If you don’t take this into account and adapt your approach to the situation, you run the risk of not getting your message across.

It is therefore essential to look for companies that can provide language services with native teams who live in the countries in question. Local professionals will be more able to handle this situation and communicate with the different groups making up this rich, complex society.



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