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Weis, Barbara --- "Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service" [2001] IndigLawB 41; (2001) 5(8) Indigenous Law Bulletin 27

Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service

by Barbara Weis

There are so many challenges in Aboriginal affairs that it is often easier to focus on the problem areas at the expense of missing the positives and the gains that are made. On 10 April 2001 the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Interpreter Service (AIS) celebrated its first anniversary. The party was held on 9 April 2001 to take advantage of the presence of the Federal Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, in Darwin. The Attorney, the Northern Territory’s Chief Minister, Denis Burke, and the Minister for Aboriginal Development, Peter Adamson, each addressed the sizeable gathering of Aboriginal interpreters, politicians, lawyers, police, health practitioners, public servants and media.


On 10 April 2000 the Northern Territory Government established the Aboriginal Interpreter Service (‘the AIS’) within the Office of Aboriginal Development. The Commonwealth Government contributes half the cost of running the AIS. This financial contribution has been critical to its development. Under the terms of the agreement between the Commonwealth and NT Governments, this funding support will continue for five years. In recognition of the importance of quickly establishing a body of trained interpreters with skills in the legal and health areas, the Commonwealth has provided an additional $250,000 this financial year for specialist training.

The Service is staffed by Coordinator Colleen Rosas, Booking Officer Ann Vincent, Booking Assistant Karlene Savage and Booking Coordinator for Central Australia, Nora Kempster. These officers are able to take bookings from anywhere in the Territory. Interpreters have been booked for work in the main centres as well as some bush court sittings.

How does the Aboriginal Interpreter Service Work?

The AIS offers a central booking service for government agencies and non-government bodies that require on-site Aboriginal language interpreters. The AIS utilises and maintains a register of interpreters in the Northern Territory.

At this time there are 176 interpreters registered, covering 104 Aboriginal languages. Since commencement, the AIS has taken over 1000 bookings from a diverse range of legal and medical settings. Wherever possible in regional areas, the AIS provides interpreters by sub-contracting work through local Aboriginal language centres. Overwhelmingly, those who have utilised the Service have commented on its usefulness and the ‘difference’ proper communication with Aboriginal clients makes to the carriage of their duties.

The AIS is staffed from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. Since December 2000 the Service has operated on a 24-hour on-call basis. This initiative was in response to strong calls for a 24-hour service from the police and health professionals.

Specialist Arrangements

In addition to the booking system the AIS provides three interpreters at Royal Darwin Hospital each weekday morning. This works on a rolling roster basis that reflects the three main Aboriginal languages spoken by patients of the Hospital in that week. Since this permanent system came into place on 23 October 2000 over 560 interpreting sessions have taken place! Talks are currently taking place with each of the other hospitals to determine the feasibility of this system for other regions.

In a similar vein, responding to a request from Aboriginal Legal Aid Services, the AIS provides two interpreters for interpreter duty three days a week in the Darwin and Alice Springs Magistrates Courts. These interpreters are used for ad hoc cases where notice of the appearance of Aboriginal clients is not possible. Again, the response to this initiative is encouraging.

The Difference that it Makes

In its first year of operation, the AIS has made a difference to over one thousand interactions between Government and legal officers, and Aboriginal people.

Every day the AIS makes a direct and tangible difference for Aboriginal people and for the legal and health professionals working with them. Interpreters are also indirectly performing an educative role. Instead of walking through the legal process or medical treatment unaware of the complexity or detail involved because it all happens in English, Aboriginal people are learning about what is actually happening to and around them. Often family members are also learning something new. There is a wider benefit to the community than the individual interpreting assignment might indicate.

The AIS also provides a whole new industry for the employment of Aboriginal people. It presents an opportunity for economic independence for many Aboriginal Territorians. The AIS generates real jobs and provides a good income for work undertaken.

Precedent Set by the Northern Territory

It should not be forgotten that what is happening with the AIS is that a brand new service has commenced on a running start basis. Prior to the start of the AIS there had been a six month Trial Aboriginal Interpreter Service in the Top End in 1997. However this trial was limited to offering assistance to health and legal services. Utilising the knowledge and experience of the Territory’s trial, the Government has set about offering a full service in largely uncharted territory. The AIS is the first government run Aboriginal interpreter service in Australia. While there have no doubt been some hiccups, the feedback has been extremely encouraging.

To contact the AIS, call (08) 8924 4300 anytime. For questions related to policy issues please contact Barbara Weis on (08) 8924 4224.

Barbara Weis is Manager of Coordination and Research at the Office of Aboriginal Development.

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