The Importance of Human-Driven Translations for Somali-English and English-Somali Communication

by | Jun 12, 2023 | News

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Do you remember the incident in 2017 when Google Translate mistakenly identified the phrase “Ooga Booga Wooga” as the Somali language?

In today’s interconnected world, language barriers often challenge effective communication. With technological advancements, machine translation tools like Google Translate have become famous for their convenience. However, relying solely on Google Translate or automatic translations can lead to inaccuracies, misinterpretations, and cultural misunderstandings when translating between Somali and English. This blog post explores the limitations of such tools and emphasizes the importance of human-driven translations for Somali-English and English-Somali language pairs.

Understanding the Limitations of Google Translation

Google Translate, an automated translation service, utilizes algorithms to convert text from one language to another. Although it can offer a basic comprehension of the text, it frequently falls short of capturing the subtleties and context of any language, particularly the intricate nature of Somali. The Somali language is deeply rooted in poetry and proverbs, adding complexity to it. The complex structure of the text, combined with the need for a genuine understanding of the language to interpret contextual elements, increases the likelihood of translation errors.

However, it is essential to note that language models like Google Translate have gradually improved over the years. They continue to enhance their translation capabilities, particularly in language-to-language translations.

Challenges of Somali-English Translations

Translating from Somali to English poses unique challenges due to the richness of the Somali language, including its distinct grammar rules, idiomatic expressions, and cultural references. Directly translating without considering these nuances can result in inaccurate and misleading translations. Moreover, Somali words often carry multiple meanings depending on the context, underscoring the importance of having a profound understanding of the language to convey the intended message accurately.

For instance, let’s take the Somali word “GAR” as an example. While Google Translate might provide “beard” or “chin” as its meaning, there is another widely used interpretation for “GAR,” which signifies “judgment” or “Garnaqsi.” This term holds historical significance and is a fundamental principle within traditional Somali governance.

For instance, let's take the Somali word "GAR" as an example. While Google Translate might provide "beard" or "chin"

When translating such terms, it is crucial to grasp the specific context in which they are utilized. A literal translation of “GAR” as “beard” or “chin” would fail to capture its intended meaning when it pertains to “judgment” within a cultural or legal framework. Therefore, the expertise of a professional translator, well-versed in both languages and their cultural nuances, becomes essential to convey the intended meaning of such words accurately.

In Somali-English translations, it is paramount to consider these nuances and cultural references to ensure precise and meaningful communication between the two languages. This emphasizes the significance of human-driven translations, where experts can bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps, providing accurate interpretations while preserving the cultural essence and intended message.

Challenges of English-Somali Translations

Moreover, translating from English to Somali presents its own set of challenges. English is a highly diverse language with various dialects and regional variations. Selecting the appropriate Somali words and phrases to convey the intended meaning accurately requires a deep understanding of both languages and their respective cultures.

Having worked as an interpreter for the first six years in Canada, I can personally attest to these difficulties. Coming from a journalism background, I often struggled to find suitable translations for certain words and terminologies in Somali. It is worth noting that the Somali language has not been updated in the last 30 years, resulting in a lack of translations for many terms related to technology, medicine, automotive, and even everyday conversational words.

This is why, as an English native speaker, you may notice certain Somali words while interacting with interpreters. In such cases, we often utilize English, Arabic, or Italian words to fill the gaps in the Somali language.

It is essential to recognize the limitations and complexities of translating between English and Somali and appreciates the expertise required to ensure accurate and culturally sensitive translations.

The Importance of Accurate Translations

Accurate translations play a critical role in facilitating effective communication, particularly within professional settings such as legal, medical, and business contexts. Inaccuracies or errors in translations can result in misunderstandings, legal complications, or harm to professional relationships. Therefore, ensuring precision and accuracy when translating between Somali and English is paramount.

The Somali community frequently immigrates to English-speaking countries, and as a result, we often come across individuals expressing dissatisfaction with translations that were not accurate. This can lead to significant issues involving legal documents or medical prescriptions. Unfortunately, in Canada, it is concerning to see that many organizations rely on automated translation tools, assuming that such tools consistently deliver reliable results.

It is crucial to recognize that although it is helpful in certain contexts, automation tools may not provide the accuracy and cultural sensitivity required for professional translations. Human expertise, particularly from qualified translators, ensures precise and reliable translations that align with the legal and cultural intricacies.

By prioritizing accurate translations and investing in human-driven approaches, organizations can avoid potential pitfalls and safeguard against misunderstandings or legal repercussions. Emphasizing the importance of professional translation services can contribute to more effective communication and stronger relationships within diverse communities.

Ensuring Cultural Sensitivity

Religion holds a significant influence in the lives of Somalis, who follow the Sunni branch of Islam and adhere to the Shafi’ite rite. Somalis maintain a deep respect for their religion and culture even when residing in other countries for extended periods. This reverence for their religious and cultural heritage greatly impacts their language and communication practices.

When translating between Somali and English, understanding the cultural nuances becomes crucial. Human translators possess a wealth of knowledge regarding the cultural intricacies of both languages. They ensure that translations are accurate linguistically and sensitive to the Somali community’s cultural norms, customs, and values. This awareness helps avoid offensive or inappropriate translations that could harm relationships or lead to misunderstandings.

Recognizing the significance of culture in language translation allows for a more nuanced and respectful approach to communication. Individuals and organizations can effectively bridge language barriers by engaging human translators with cultural expertise while upholding cultural sensitivity and fostering mutual understanding.

The Future of Somali-English and English-Somali Translations

As technology continues to advance, machine translations will undoubtedly make further progress. However, it is improbable that they will entirely replace human translators in Somali-English and English-Somali translations. The complexities inherent in these languages, coupled with the need for cultural sensitivity, necessitate the involvement of human translators.

The future of translation lies in a collaborative approach, where technology is a valuable tool to assist human translators in enhancing their efficiency and accuracy. Machine translation systems can help expedite the translation process, generate initial drafts, and flag potential errors. However, the expertise of human translators in grasping the subtle nuances, context, and cultural implications remains irreplaceable.

It is essential to acknowledge the contributions of all those involved in refining machine translation systems, including the contributors to platforms like Google Translate. Their efforts have undoubtedly advanced the field but cannot supplant the deep understanding and cultural fluency that human translators bring.


Regarding Somali-English and English-Somali translations, relying solely on Google Translation or automatic translations can lead to inaccuracies and cultural misunderstandings. Human-driven translations offer the accuracy, cultural sensitivity, and contextual understanding required for effective communication. Professional translators play a vital role in bridging language barriers, ensuring that messages are accurately conveyed while preserving the nuances and cultural references specific to each language.


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