Cultural engagement with aboriginal translators and interpreters

We run an Australia-based language service company, and recently merged with a company that provides legal interpreting services. When we began, we engaged with our aboriginal interpreters the same way we engaged with our interpreters of European descent.

In Australia there is a lot of racial tension, especially with Australia Day (or Invasion Day to some). We did not, for example, want to play to negative stereotypes, such as that when formal paperwork is presented to an individual, it may be met with hesitancy.

In Australia indigenous people are subject to being ridiculed for being “sluggish” or “lacking enthusiasm.” However, this is simply not true; indigenous interpreters rather want to do things rightfully by cultural and traditional methods. This doesn’t mean they wait 3-5 days. It simply means they want to feel an ownership of deciding when — in this case — they want to do the paperwork.

I discovered that established protocol for engaging with my indigenous interpreters did not fully facilitate individual or indigenous needs; I couldn’t just tell them they had to show up at 2 p.m. on a certain date. Instead, I created a relationship by calling and checking in. This built a slow but steady reason to be in touch. Then I would offer options of times, letting them decide when they wanted to see us. This proved very effective.

In general, navigating the demands of indigenous legal interpreters presented a unique set of challenges that our company had to figure out from scratch.


Our company deals with the Western Desert and Arrernte languages in a professional capacity. Western Desert comprises four major languages: Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Luritja and Ngaanyatjarra.

As a service provider, the company we merged with focused mostly on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY), which literally means “people come go.” This is located in the top western corner of South Australia and has a population of around 4,500 people. The APY is self-administered and has a unique self-governing relationship with the state and federal governments. As a part of the agreement, anyone who wishes to enter the land must apply for a permit and pay a fee accordingly, unless they are an indigenous inhabitant.

The remote location of the community creates the first issue. The population travel from the APY to Adelaide on a regular basis. This creates two major geographical issues: we do not have interpreters permanently residing in Adelaide, and major services are not freely available in the APY lands.

As a direct result, there is an imbalance of interpreters available to service indigenous clients. For example, the South Australian judicial system operates in Ceduna, Port Augusta and Adelaide, which means indigenous men and women are taken from wherever they reside and are brought to these locations. Meanwhile, those who have the skills to interpret are back in the APY. In some instances there are interpreters in those areas who have the skills to interpret but they might not be available.

Finding suitable candidates is extremely difficult. Those with National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) certification obtained through the Diploma of Interpreting have often gone back to their lands and cannot be contacted. Indigenous interpreters, even if they know of one another, often don’t have the ability to get in contact, as they travel a lot between city and home, often attending official community business such as funerals.

There are differences in business culture and administrative requirements applicable to all interpreters regardless of the language they provide service in: Australian Business Number, criminal record certificate, bank account details and so on. This includes handling necessary paperwork such as valid tax invoices by filling out and returning them after being properly signed by an authorized person (such as a business representative). In the past we provided self-addressed, stamped envelopes but they were never returned. A new system involves an accounts staff member who has to deal with individual bookings out of regular order so the indigenous interpreters can be paid. Payments are expected the same day or the next day at the latest. For all other contract interpreters our payment cycle is once a month.

It is also quite difficult in indigenous interpreting to provide an interpreter who is not related to the non-English speaking client. Understanding those relationships is hard for anyone who is not indigenous to Australia, and the level of relationship is completely different to most other cultures. It makes it difficult to apply the code of ethics for interpreters on this and some other grounds.

Keeping ongoing good relations with indigenous interpreters requires regular phone contact, not just when allocating jobs but also just to check how they are, to build up the trust and the association. Once this is in place, they like to reciprocate, which means calls to our staff at various times of day and evening to discuss a range of matters not connected to their interpreting work. Any sign of not wanting to engage in this level of relationship would be considered unfriendly and the contact would cease.

Additionally there are limited resources for indigenous interpreters to refer to. Original documentation and administration efforts were set up by Christian missionaries. As a result, the papers available are generally religious.

Telephone interpreting is least favored by many interpreters in other languages. It is additionally challenging for indigenous interpreters due to the nature of communication they engage in involving body language, and they may be using technology that does not provide clear reception.

Recently, during a teleconference with an aboriginal interpreter — which mercifully did not get disconnected and the call did not drop out as may often happen if they are outside metropolitan areas — the court clerk read out the bail conditions. The language was strictly legal and far from what even an average English speaking person would understand. The clerk read out large sections of the conditions in one go, expecting the interpreter to convey it fluently and smoothly into Pitjantjatjara.

This was an example of a client with a different level of education and from a lower socioeconomic background. The interpreter was asked to interpret something that made no sense to the recipient of the message.

Interpreters are sometimes blamed for either not interpreting the message correctly or not speaking the language correctly because the client does not understand the message. However, speaking or understanding the language does not guarantee comprehending the message. Interpreting requires mirror technique, an important tool available to professionals to gauge if the client has understood whatever it is that they need to understand. It is done by asking them not whether they understand, but what they understand, and to repeat it in their own words. It is often done with mental health patients or elderly people.

This is not to suggest that aboriginal clients need this because of their level of education, but because the justice system is completely different than what they are used to, and the concepts are hard to grasp regardless of the level of English the interpreter or the client has.

Cultural commitments and issues

Within indigenous communities, there are some commitments that are completely understandable but remain challenging.

Funerals tend to be a series of events and can last between a few days and a week. If travel time is added to the equation an interpreter can be gone for a couple of weeks at a time. In addition, more times than not the majority of interpreters will be related and will all return to the lands. This creates an exodus of interpreters in one hit.

Male initiation is the event when a boy is ready to be recognized as a man by the community. This process can take anywhere between one to six months. Once this process is complete it then creates a secondary issue; men and women cannot interpret for each other. This means making separate appointments for males and females. There is a loophole to this but it is very rare.

Tjukurpa (pronounced chook-ur-pa) is the ancestral and tribal law code. Essentially it is the APY (Anangu) law that provides the people with a system of moral, ethical and lawful beliefs to assess what is right and wrong. This is instrumental in obtaining rules for the people and land. The Tjukurpa is conveyed to the people through symbolic stories and metaphors, it is not a written document or constitution. The system also implements procedures and penalties for breaking the law. The system is taught and handed down through Inna, which is a series of songs and ritual dances.

This creates division and complexity between tribal law and Australian law. They are completely different from one another. Not only is it difficult in theory, it is also morally and ethically challenging for indigenous interpreters, creating a need for longer periods of thought, digestion and conveying.

Referring to the deceased is also a sensitive topic and at times confusing. Europeans will happily refer to those who have passed away by their name. However, in the APY, it is hugely disrespectful to do so, as this will disturb the spirits of the person being spoken about. In the event that an interpreting session relates to the deceased, the interpreter and the client can be deeply uncomfortable or upset if the professional is to say and repeat the name. Instead the word kunmanara is used in reference. Although this is a respectful word for speaking about the deceased, it can get very confusing.

Specific linguistic issues

Numeracy: A formal counting system does not exist in indigenous languages. In the APY there is no need or level of importance to count. For example, in the Western world if we are hungry we know how many items we will eat. In the APY, you know that you are hungry, and thus you simply eat until you are not hungry. Further, it is common in cattle stations for indigenous jackaroos (cowboys) not to know the exact number of cattle, but they will individually name them. If cattle were to be lost, the jackaroo would not know how many were missing, but he would know exactly which were missing by their names. This proves difficult in court sentencing; 30 years does not have a defined volume.

Measurements: The English lan-
guage incorporates arithmetic to specify distances and times. However, indigenous languages work in six sections: within arm’s reach; within talking distance; within throwing distance; outside throwing distance but visible range; outside sight but within country; and beyond country.

This creates great difficulties in conveying language accurately. This then creates a relay time beyond any other language. When an interpreter is in session, the interpreter must use vocabulary and imagery to the best of the interpreter’s abilities until the interpreter is understood. With regard to translating (in written form), the vocabulary must pass through the general consensus of the elders for approval.

Time: Time is a completely different concept in our two worlds. It is untrue to say the indigenous demographic do not have a gauge of time. They do, but it is significantly different in comparison. The concept of time is not measured as we treat minutes, hours, weeks and so on. Instead, there are loose concepts of time, such as later on/afterwards and before/not long ago. Specifically, the English concept of today or now does not share the same concept of urgency. In indigenous culture, today recognizes that something needs to be done at some point on that day. This is quite often where we need to be ultra-specific and our indigenous interpreters try to conform. Additionally, the tense of time grammatically does not exist, which is why a specific time needs to belong to a seasonal event.

As illustrated above, there are considerable gaps in our languages. We must remember, for example, that Pitjantjatjara is not a primitive language, it is simply relevant to its people and climate. English is spoken in more than a third of the world, which means terminology has forever grown as geopolitical environments have been established and incorporated into language.

The Western desert languages have progressed in some areas with the global world. However, it is a slow progression. Initially the languages absorb English words with literal translations. For example, the word for airplane was initially eaglehawks, but then progressed to a fusion of indigenous language and English: plane pronounced with accent. This is a constant battle as new technology emerges. Indigenous languages are trying hard to keep up, but are unable to adopt words immediately without a general consensus of the word in their own language. This makes the interpreter revert back to an explanation rather than a translation or a word.

The provision of interpreting services for indigenous people is not a viable business for either government or private business. However, it is a service that is required and should be attended to. The only reason this has succeeded as much as it has is because of perseverance and trust. I have been able to mentor and gain the trust of a few indigenous men by simply listening, explaining everything I am doing and my intentions. I did not force, rush or obligate any of the current interpreters to join our services. From here they were able to see my legitimate desire to help them and their people. We believe we have found a formula that works for indigenous interpreters and hopefully with time will become less demanding on our agency’s regular operations and business structure.

Everything I do, I communicate with the interpreters. As a private business owner or manager, you may never discuss money with a contractor. However, in this instance, I have accounted for every single cent, so they know exactly how much they make, when they make it and what for. Prior to any job, I always ask them if they are happy because they need to let me know if they are not. If they are not happy or even hesitant, I act on it.

The interpreter is included in the planning of an assignment and provided with the opportunity to voice an opinion on compensation. I have set a standard for them to neither undersell nor oversell themselves. Simply put, they can’t work for nothing and they can’t be greedy.

In the short term, we are helping out “our people” and looking out for the first generations. If we don’t help them, many brothers and sisters will continue to be in the correctional, unemployment and medical systems without any assistance and will be indefinite cases or be misrepresented. In the long term, we want to employ indigenous men and women and decrease the unemployment rate. We also want to establish a statewide service for indigenous people to serve as an indigenous cultural training service and information center. This keeps the crew motivated, knowing that one day their people will have formal services they built themselves!

Through all this, though it might seem trivial, having a laugh is essential. Unfortunately, the types of services requiring this interpreting are rather depressing. We need that laugh to keep motivated.

The catalyst to all of this was finding Graham Malbunka, an aboriginal gentleman, through a contact I made with an elder. Without my perseverance and his skills none of this would have happened. Together we are recruiting both young aboriginal men and women to interpret.