Sunday, June 19, 2016

TED talks in African languages?

Of all the TED and TEDx talks - a genre of knowledge sharing that began in the 1980s but went "viral" with the possibilities offered by YouTube - have any been given in any African language? The question is not so easy to answer as I'll get to below, but the process of trying to answer it gives rise to other questions such as: Could a TED talk or a TEDx event be given in one or several African languages?

Image source:

TED - "Ideas Worth Spreading"

TED, an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design, "is a global set of conferences run by the private nonprofit organization, Sapling Foundation." The idea of the conferences is sharing of ideas "usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less)."

The conferences have been held mainly in North America and Europe, with a handful in Asia and Latin America. One, in 2007, was held in Arusha, Tanzania with the theme, "Africa: The Next Chapter." Many, but not all, of the talks in these events become videos featured online.

The talks, which total some "2200+" according to the website, are apparently all given in English. (The program for the 2007 conference in Arusha is not available online to check.) Quite a number of talks are subtitled in other languages, as I'll discuss further on.

TEDx - "x = independently organized event"

Image adapted from:
TEDx events, of which there are several types, are licensed by TED but organized separately. The number of TEDx events around the world is not stated anywhere I looked, but one list includes 2967 events (number from the line count in my text editor), and a nice interactive map display includes some past events that are not on that list (I randomly checked some in Africa).

The total number of talks at these independent conferences must therefore be staggering. The drop-down list in the sidebar of the TEDx languages page lists 43 languages, of which the only African one is Arabic (to that extent, my first question in the opening paragraph above would be answered in the affirmative). However, given the large number of TEDxs that have been held in many diverse locations around the world, is it possible that there have been presentations in other languages not on that list?

From a rough count of TEDx events in Africa in 2015 on the map mentioned above, there were ~80 events, with well over half in diverse locations in sub-Saharan Africa. Were presentations in places like for example Kano, Nigeria, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia all English-only?

Subtitling of TED talks

According to the translation page on the TED site - there has been subtitling of talks in over 100 languages (the actual count on the page is 110, thanks again to copy-paste & line-count, but that number includes some varieties of the same languages, as well as English originals). The African languages among these, with their count of how many talks, include: Afrikaans (19); Amharic (13); Arabic (2091); Arabic, Algerian (9); Hausa (1); Igbo (1); Somali (20); and Swahili (33).

The one talk (in English) with Hausa subtitles - embedded below - was given in 2003 and with the subtitles evidently added in 2008. Worth noting that the Boko orthography is used, as you can see with the hooked consonants.

The one talk with Igbo subtitles does not appear to follow the standard orthography - the lack of subdot vowels is one giveaway, but also tone marks are absent. And there are untranslated English terms - the first instance I recall seeing of code-mixing in subtitles. The other language subtitles look polished, though I'm even less in the position to evaluate them.

TEDx talks, as noted above, come in various languages, and apparently some of them have same-language subtitling, although that term is not used (for example several dozen in French).

The translation/subtitling effort itself looks like a successful involvement of volunteer contributions for at least a number of languages.

TED or TEDx in African languages?

There are two ways to achieve more linguistic diversity relevant to Africa in TED talks. The first would be through expanding the translation program mentioned above.This might require some new approaches as the volunteer model may not work as well as in Northern countries. The benefit would be expanding access, particularly with some more widely spoken African languages.

The second would be to organize (more?) TEDx events that either allow presentations in African languages, or that explicitly invite presentations in one or more African language(s). This would seem to be an interesting way to bring in diverse presenters, and to develop recorded content that could be shared locally, nationally, or regionally (depending on the language demographics). Even for those without internet or mobile access to such TEDx recordings, it might be possible in some contexts to distribute video for TV and audio-only for national and community radio. And such content could of course be translated into other languages for wider dissemination.

Ideas for sharing, after all, can come in many languages.


Muddassir said...

For days I have been syrfing the net on the availability of TED talks been translated into Hausa , my native language . Thanks

Don said...

You're welcome, and thank you for the comment. Unfortunately only one translated & subtitled in Hausa. Again it seems like there could be great benefit to having more translations in various African languages.

It would also be interesting to test a TEDx event in one (or more) widely spoken African language(s) such as Hausa. Feature for example scientists who are fluent in an African language talking about some interesting aspect of their research in that language. Such talks could of course also be translated into English and French, but the point in having them in African languages first would be to bring such knowledge in spoken form to wider audiences within the continent (via not only internet, but also perhaps TV or radio, as mentioned above).

Ben said...

I attended TEDxAddis. All the talks were in English.

Don said...

Thanks Ben, I appreciate the information. Kind of surprising - given the long role of Amharic (written as well as spoken) in various sectors in Ethiopia, I would have expected at least some talks in that language.

Btw, just saw this on Twitter re a TEDx talk in Chichewa (aka Chinyanja).

Maz said...

Hello Don,
Despite Youtube, many in Africa, or perhaps in Nigeria here haven't heard of TED/TEDx.
One notable talk that drew us to TED was Chimamanda "Danger of a single story", perhaps most wiedwwidely shared Nigerian TED speech.
If I may first ask, aside promoting African languages what benefits do we expect from such. However TED events in Africa or locally developed similar events would prove more relevant.
Whatever having set the ball rolling, what next do you see to be needed in this direction. (Ps I want a link about Kano TED event).

Don said...

Thanks Mazhun. I also appreciated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk.

There are two main benefits I would see to using diverse languages, including African languages, in TED/TEDx talks:

1) Greater diversity in subjects, content, and speakers. I suspect if there were a TEDx event in, say, Hausa, that the types of topics, information and ideas, and ways of looking at the world would have a character different than an English-only event in the same location. (There's no problem with English of course, but by doing everything high-end only in one Europhone language, we limit the range of perspectives and knowledge sharing.)

2) Wider local audience. Taking again a possible TEDx in Hausa as an example, imagine how many Hausaphones not fluent in English might potentially be reached. (And for that matter, how those who do speak English might also benefit.) Youtube videos of TEDx talks can be accessed by higher end mobile devices of course; one might also disseminate audio-only via local radio. There are smart people in circumstances that never allowed them to advance their formal education, who could in this way directly hear ideas worth spreading in their first languages.

There was a TEDx event in Kano in April 2015 - "Ribadu Street." Is that the one you're referring to? See

Maz said...

Thanks Don,
I'm set to organize TEDx in Hausa language. Aside the guides on website, what workarounds do you think I should consider. Thanks

Don said...

Glad to hear it. I'm not an expert in any way on TEDx so any comments here are just ideas.

1) Diversity of speakers. The TEDx guidelines mention diversity in content. It may also be good to have one or two Hausa speakers from Niger (Republique du) or maybe Ghana. This way it's not just a northern Nigeria event but more of a West African event.

2) Build contacts with others in Nigeria who might be interested in organizing similar TEDx events in, say, Yoruba or Igbo. This would help develop collaboration rather than competition in the longer term, which is important for everyone's success.

3) How will videos of talks in Hausa be translated in say English for subtitles?

I can pass on word of your effort in case there are experts who can offer help. Please feel free to contact me offline (by LinkedIn for example).

Good luck, Mazhun!