Magirirane, the multilingual genius

The first impression you get on stepping into Jean Marie Magirirane’s office is that you just walked into a busy law chamber. What with the big paperback books eating up space on his workstation and beyond, on the shelves behind his desk. 
Jean-Marie Magirirane. The New Times/Courtesy
Jean-Marie Magirirane. The New Times/Courtesy

The first impression you get on stepping into Jean Marie Magirirane’s office is that you just walked into a busy law chamber. What with the big paperback books eating up space on his workstation and beyond, on the shelves behind his desk. 

On close examination, these big books turn out to be dictionaries, ranging from the ordinary types you find in libraries and homes, to the more technical ones like the bi-lingual, mono-lingual, and vintage version dictionaries. 

The one Magirirane is presently consulting is a bilingual one, with French-English and English-French translations. Another dictionary is so tattered that it will draw one’s attention just because of that. On flipping through the pages, it becomes evident that it is a very old version of one of the popular dictionary brand names, with some of the words in it so archaic that it reminds you of Shakespeare’s complicated, metered prose. 

The dictionaries are Magirirane’s major stock-in-trade or “capital” for the kind of job that he is into; Language Translation and Interpretation.  

Just like the set up of his office at the former ETS Rwandaise junction in downtown Kigali is somewhat confusing, so is the nature of his work. Our interview therefore kicks off on a note of explanation of what language translators and interpreters like him do. 

He explains: “Language translation refers to the act of rendering a written text from language A to language B. In language translation, you deal with written documents, while in interpretation, you deal with translation of the spoken word.” 

Magirirane has only been able to do his work smoothly on account of his good command of four key languages; Kinyarwanda, English, French, and Swahili, knowledge of each of which is a must for a person in the local translation industry. 

Even with this, he spends a huge chunk of his time perusing multi-lingual dictionaries just so he can pick up that extra word or two. 

The nature of his clientele generally falls under two groups; private individuals with small documents to translate, and corporate firms. And people translate just about anything, ranging from school reports to birth and marriage and death certificates, adoption letters, and Identification documents. 

A big number of these are people referred to language translation services by foreign embassies to translate their travel and personal identification documents into an international language. 

“On average, we charge Rwf15,000 to translate a single page, although this is sometimes negotiable,” he says.

He is quick to add that the business is plagued by a reluctance on the part of clients to pay, usually on the false belief that it (language translation) does not require any specialised skills, a fact that he strongly disputes. 

“A translator must have training, and speaking two or more languages frequently does not guarantee that they can translate,” Magirirane argues.

Magirirane is a graduate of Language Translation and Interpretation from the National University of Rwanda (NUR), where he finished in 2010. But even before that, he seemed to know from a younger age that he would want to end up in the language sector. It is the reason he studied Kinyarwanda, English, Swahili, and French as core subjects in his O-Level. 

After graduation in 2010, his university retained him as an English language lecturer, a job that he carried on for three months, before moving to Kigoma Secondary School in the Southern Province, still to teach language. That same year, he was chosen among a group selected to train English teachers across the country. 

Through all this time, he kept getting part-time translation jobs from his lecturers at NUR, and as the deals kept coming in, an idea occurred to him; start his own formal language translation service. Early last year, he managed to lay a foundation for his dream, which he is building now. 

He works with a team of six freelance translators, explaining that they (translators) work better under a non-permanent arrangement. 

“The job of translation is too demanding to the brain, so a translator has to work few hours and get paid well,” adding that “a really good conference translator can be paid up to $600 (about Rwf400,000) per day.” 

Related to translation is the escorting service, which is offered to tourists with language inhibitions, and what is termed “whispering service”, where a person hires a translator to privately whisper to them translations at a conference. 

Magirirane decries the relative lack of competition in the sector, noting that, “the sector here (in Rwanda) is still very young. Even when a job is tendered, you may end up with only two bidders.” 

The other problem is the lack of an umbrella body to streamline the industry and further their aims. “This exposes our job to unqualified people,” he laments.