Indigenous Law Bulletin
Indigenous Issues Policy Unit, Courts and Tribunals Branch, Civil Law Division, Attorney-General's Department
ISBN 0 642 20857 3
Reviewed by Uldis Ozolins
This is a timely collection of papers from a conference in Alice Springs in October 1995, sponsored jointly by the Commonwealth Attorney-General's ('A-G's') Department and the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI).
Despite the fact that a significant proportion of the Aboriginal population speak an Indigenous language, and a further significant proportion speaks Aboriginal English, often of a kind difficult to understand by other Australians, and despite the fact that Australia has been an exemplary provider of language services for many of its deaf and immigrant residents, needs in Aboriginal Interpreting/ Translating (I/T) have been and continue to be neglected. Indeed, this issue rarely gets on to agendas even when other serious Indigenous issues are discussed.
I/T is seldom mentioned in relation to Indigenous affairs, apart from momentary publicity generated by such events as the Chamberlain case ('Interpreter Marlene Cousens Bridges Gap,' The Age 16 June 1986 p 3). From the evidence presented at this forum, I/T is almost totally neglected even by those who work most with Indigenous populations in often critical situations: the police, lawyers, courts, doctors and other medical staff, and administrators of various kinds.
By contrast, interpreting and translating did grow in other domains. At the end of World War II, Australia saw itself as an overwhelmingly white and monolingual country, and thus was able to ignore the exceptions that blatantly cried against such a view. In its massive post-war immigration scheme, Australia deliberately accepted non-English speaking migrants when it couldn't find enough migrants from its traditional source countries of Britain and Ireland, and trusted in a policy of assimilation to ensure cultural differences would not be evident. Interpreters provided early in this period were usually volunteers or those from earlier migrations who had acquired some English. From the assimilation perspective, such language assistance was seen to be only temporary in nature. However, continuing mass immigration established language services as a necessity, even though in many instances up to the present day, Australians tried to get by without interpreters. Australia was a world innovator with such inventions as the Telephone Interpreter Service (TIS, now called the Translation and Interpreting Service) introduced in 1973. Concerns over standards in provision led to the creation of the National Accreditation Authority for Interpreters and Translators (NAATI) in 1977, which provided for accreditation over a range of levels from language aide to professional practitioner levels. There was steady growth of service provision in an increasing number of languages through the 1980s, and a degree of professionalisation.
These developments occurred at some distance from Indigenous languages, though not totally without links. The I/T professional association in Victoria in the mid-1980s named their journal Bennelong in recognition of Australia's first recognised interpreter. More significantly, there was a degree of incorporation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages into the main structures of I/T in Australia, to emphasise the point that language issues were not only migrant issues. NAATI accepted Aboriginal and Tones Strait Islander languages in the early 1980s, providing accreditation in several languages through courses at the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) and Batchelor College, but these faltered in the late 1980s as proper services and career paths for interpreters were not developed. Several mainstream language services catering for migrant languages also provided some services in Indigenous languages, despite often massive problems of interpreters' availability and logistics of travel and access.
Thus, a host of difficulties have surrounded the development of language services in Indigenous languages to anything like the same extent as for other languages. The Proper True Talk forum presented an excellent overview of these problems, focusing on indelible attitudes towards Indigenous languages and interpreters on the part of major institutions and professionals, the still deeply entrenched reluctance to use interpreters for a host of practical and attitudinal reasons, the present impossibility of a career in interpreting, problems of training, and community issues of trust and relations with interpreters and institutions.
This Forum was the first serious attempt to comprehensively address these issues. The Commonwealth A-G's Department had begun taking on issues of language services in a report in 1991 ('Access to Interpreters in the Legal System'), but had been propelled headlong by the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which made specific recommendations on I/T training and service provision in Indigenous languages. As well as A-G's and NAATI, the Forum had an impressive role call, with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), IAD, various Aboriginal legal services, and mainstream institutions from the Department of Social Security (DSS) to health systems represented. Additionally, the Forum was preceded by an educators' workshop.
There were papers from several practitioners who had experienced lack of language services first hand. David Bamber of the Central Australia Aboriginal Legal Aid Service succinctly described the unending avoidance of language issues in the Alice Springs Magistrate Court: on any day, up to 40 Aborigines may appear, speaking a variety of languages, many of them being picked up on overnight warrants:
'A lawyer who can't speak the language will speak to them in as much English as he can cope with, hope he got his instructions right, go in there, plead guilty and the lient will go in, be called up, sit down, the lawyer will stand up saying things about him which the client can't understand, giving his version of events which may be pretty well right, maybe not, then the Magistrate will speak back to this person who will stand up there and nod and nod' (p 103).
Timoti Karetu, Maori Language Commissioner, outlined the much more organised Aoteoroa/New Zealand situation. Among the best contributions were those by Lizzie Ellis (IAD), giving an excellent account of the history of hope and disappointment in Indigenous language I/T, and insightful suggestions on current needs in training and approach; and Peter Carroll with an overview of the scope of language needs in the Northern Territory. Graham McKay from Edith Cowan University pointed to the trap of focusing only on 'major' languages and the need to ensure needs in small language communities are met. Also significant was the contribution of linguist Diana Fades, who described misunderstandings in communication with speakers of Aboriginal English, and whose work along with others such as Michael Cooke are slowly attuning parts of the legal system to linguistic issues.
A most useful contribution came from a group of Aboriginal students training as interpreters, whose list of recommendations eloquently detailed the logistical and practical difficulties faced by those willing to commit themselves to working as interpreters and translators. Notable among absences at the Forum, however, were the police, and there were some expressions of concern over the degree of Indigenous participation, although several Indigenous speakers did speak at the Forum.
Despite the quality of many contributions, the overall feeling to emerge from this collection is one of unease: the issue of I/T is caught up in wider issues of Indigenous affairs, of course, but in peculiar ways these wider concerns often completely obliterate any concern for a vital cultural and social difference-that of language. There seems to be an almost unbridgeable, profound degree of misunderstanding. On the one hand there are those who are concerned with language issues, wanting to raise language issues as a serious shortcoming, but also as a potential key to improving a number of desperate situations. On the other hand, there are those who either cannot see language issues at all, or who see them as very much a technicality-away from the real issues, such as discrimination and racism.
Yet this divide is not just between those sympathetic to Indigenous people and those not sympathetic. Far from it. As Russell Goldflam pointed out in his contribution on language needs and opportunities in the legal system, it is not only the 'system', 'they', who are not concerned to use interpreters, but also those wanting to represent Aborigines, 'us', who usually completely ignore the language issue, as shown by several contributors' descriptions of current legal process. Goldflam interestingly gives some direct pointers to how legal challenges could be mounted precisely to secure the use of interpreters, and thus give a voice to the Aboriginal party in legal cases. Such challenges would rely on numerous precedents by various courts that have supported the necessity of having an interpreter for the hearing to be proper, and to enable the non-English speaking party to be 'linguistically present'. Curiously, these arguments are rarely used in contemporary cases involving the Indigenous community.
Not all, however, is bleak. NAATI has issued an impressive discussion paper 'Towards a National Training Strategy for Interpreting and Translating in Aboriginal and Tones Strait Islander Languages', and, after a lull of several years, training in I/T in Indigenous languages has recommenced at a number of places in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland with NAATI support, and more interpreters are now being accredited. Yet such accredited interpreters will only be able to gain secure employment and have an effect upon the presently disastrous linguistic situation if there is now attention to provision of services, and significantly changed attitudes among practitioners.
A peculiar aspect of provision of I/T services was that some of the mainstream organisations that formerly did provide some patchy services in Indigenous languages (such as TIS) gradually withdrew from this area, often as a result of suggestions from Aboriginal organisations that Indigenous language issues had nothing to do with immigration, and that they needed to be controlled by Aborigines themselves. Whatever the rationale for this, it has in fact meant the creation of a vacuum, with the few TIS contributions to Aboriginal I/T contracting in recent years. It seems that only the DSS of the mainstream agencies has taken on board language issues as an ongoing responsibility, with Indigenous languages used both by its Liaison Officers and also by contract interpreters. Some individual hospitals such as Alice Springs have also started down this path. Yet, in fact, the gap in services has not been filled by Aboriginal organisations: at the Forum, ATSIC argued it had only been funded for language education and language maintenance activities, and needed extra funding to provide language services. Its statements at the Forum did not inspire the feeling that this would be a major priority for ATSIC in the future.
As a first Forum, this collection excellently details present difficulties, some notable achievements, and the hard road ahead. It is a vital document for anyone working with Aborigines not only in legal settings, but in health, education, or community relations of any kind.
For lawyers specifically, the collection eloquently argues that without attention to issues of language and communication-extraordinarily difficult, it seems, particularly for the many monolingual lawyers working in the field-one likely outcome is that many lawyers working for legal centres or otherwise wishing to represent Aboriginal clients will themselves be unable to communicate with their clients. This would be a travesty of professional ethics and of representational politics alike, losing any chance of having the client's voice actually heard rather than ignored.
It needs to be remembered that attitudes on the part of the legal system towards using interpreters in the case of Aboriginal languages are not markedly different to those met in the past, and still occasionally today, by interpreters in other languages. Indeed, the increased interest in language services by the legal system, as marked by several major reports and initiatives in recent years, has come about precisely because of the widespread concern over the effectiveness of the legal system in being able to communicate with those who come before it, whether they communicate in Indigenous, immigrant or sign languages.
Provision of I/T services will not of itself solve the myriad problems faced by Indigenous people in the legal system or elsewhere. Yet as many Proper True Talk contributors argue, it will actually be the step that will lead to the individual Aboriginal voice being heard. What is needed is clearly both law reform and attention to the details of language services; and the one will reinforce and encourage the other.
Proper True Talk is a salutary reminder in particular of the harm done-to the legal process and above all to the client one is servicing-in not employing interpreters and making sure one can hear one's client's voice.