KASAMA Vol. 20 No. 4 / October-November-December 2006 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

IWSS Logo“Moving Beyond Rhetoric To Diversity In Practice: A Human Rights Framework To Address Violence Against Women”

Immigrant Women’s Support Service Forum — Bardon Conference Centre, Brisbane, Australia — November 9 & 10, 2006


Interpreters: Policy and Practice

ANA MARIA ALLIMANT HOLAS began her presentation to the IWSS forum with the lyrics of a popular song from the 1960s. The following article is an edited version of her paper.

It's a restless hungry feeling
That don't mean no one no good,
When everything I'm a-sayin'
You can say it just as good.
You're right from your side,
I'm right from mine.
We're both just too many mornings
An' a thousand miles behind.[1]

In this brief presentation I would like to talk about the unsaid regarding interpreting policies in Queensland and in Australia. I shall do this by looking at the cracks in the official and formal discourses about interpreting.

To begin, the formal discourse about interpreting does not say or align with Suvendrini Perera’s argument [2] that in contemporary Australia there is an insistent trend towards a raceless or colourless (other than white) society. I argue that this trend is responsible for a contradictory state of affairs regarding people of non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB), where at once we see a movement towards silencing, subjecting and subordinating people of NESB to the Australian way - that is to say, Anglo Saxon/Celtic - along with a movement towards a mega-visibility of the NESB persons constructed as a threat, deviants (‘The Others’) who must be kept under surveillance both at home and in public.

The tendency to render NESB people at once invisible and mega-visible creates a hungry feeling meaning no one any good, causing people to remain separated by a thousand miles, like in the case of women who for various reasons can not exercise their rights to an interpreter, while at the same time become mega-visible (especially if they are Muslim) by being the object of racial assaults and discrimination. The contradictory state of affairs in Australia is also reflected, as Anthony Burke and Katharine Gelber put it, in the ‘sovereignty’ and ‘rights’ paradigm [3]. The sovereignty notion includes issues of national security, unity and government responsibilities. The rights concept comprises the idea that humans are born with definite rights. So the question is: can human rights be exercised in a context of national security and sovereignty?

This trend (towards a raceless, colourless society other than white) is not new and can be traced back to the times of the encounter between the first people of this land and the convicts from Britain who, despite being victims of the British class system, transported to a penal colony and used as slave labour, still aspired to the higher status of colonisers. Even though they could not ‘disperse’ the indigenous peoples into total oblivion, and thereby make a reality of the myth of Terra Nullius (empty land), they did develop the apartheid model with Aborigines replacing them on the bottom rung of the social ladder.

A later manifestation of this strong tendency towards a raceless (other than white) Australia was the White Australia Policy that can be traced from the anti-Chinese legislation of the 1850s to the appearance of multiculturalism in the mid-1970s which aimed to suppress the racial nature of Australia under a rhetoric devoted to values of equality in cultural and economic terms [4] and the fantasy of the one Australian nation.

This is most presently illustrated in the debate around the proposed changes to the Australian Citizenship Legislation (a discussion paper developed by the Commonwealth government) and in the words of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Mr. Andrew Robb that says:

 “The government believes it is important that immigrants develop English skills which allow them to communicate effectively with their fellow Australians to fully contribute to Australian society..."[5].

These words have an oppressive and dividing tone as only English speaking abilities are praised amid ignoring the contributions made by NESB people and the worth of NESB people’s cultures of origin. Thus, reinforcing that identity and cohesion in Australia can only be achieved by the sharing of a common mono-cultural history such as that of Anglo Saxon/Celtic.

Specific Issues

About 16% of Australia’s population speaks a language other than English at home [6]. These foreign languages are a sign of Australian diversity and, from the position argued earlier, are a menace to the pretence of ‘one culture, one nation’ that is sometimes expressed in a hostile reaction from some people when hearing foreign languages in public spaces. This perhaps may explain the late development of translating and interpreting services that were almost non-existent in Australia up until the late 1960s. And, may also explain why teachers advised migrant parents to speak only English at home so children would only be exposed to the English language and NESB students were dispersed into mixed classes to keep them away from speaking their first language. Assimilation was the framework of this approach in the late 1930s.

From around 1947 various government departments and the Red Cross did translation for migrants until 1958 when the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) took responsibility. However the Whitlam Labor government (1972) developed some important social reforms including the creation of a Racial Discrimination Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, colour, descent or ethnic origin [7] and provided the opportunities for various advances in the multicultural area including the establishment of the free Emergency Telephone Interpreter Service in Melbourne and Sydney. In 1977 The National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) was created to facilitate the development of national standards.

In 1978 the Galbally Report found that in spite of the provision of English language programs there would be a significant proportion of people unable to speak English well. [8] The report recommended the improvement of the Telephone Interpreting Services and the creation of proper standards for the translating and interpreting professions.

Currently the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) is still available nationally. However, in recent years there has been a constant unresolved tension between Federal and State Government responsibilities about a universal provision. This tension represents a crack in the nation’s commitment to have specific cultural institutions attempting to assist people to reach social, politic, spiritual and economic participation. In fact, many NESB people are marginalised and disadvantaged by not being able to communicate and are silenced in their capabilities and strengths, relegated to live in a sort of parallel society.

Thereby NESB people are not being engaged within their conditions. More exactly it denotes the extent to which NESB people are made to surrender to Western practices, approaches, concepts and experiences. The gaze and acts of practitioners, policy makers, services, and people in the community - including NESB people — is tainted and precludes more equal relationships. This is intimately related to a sense of spiritual and emotional unwellness that many NESB people commonly express as not belonging.

Language policies should not only be integrated with a culturally competent approach but should also aim to assist NESB people to reach a sense of belonging as a passage towards safety and well being that has many routes, all interconnecting to a fair and inclusive destination. This sense of belonging should be characterised by the diversity of its people in terms of friends and social support networks. Services should be created, not made or imposed. It requires time for listening, learning and opportunities for sharing and developing a new set of social relations along with cross-cultural encounters.




Ana Maria Allimant HolasABOUT THE AUTHOR:

ANA MARIA ALLIMANT HOLAS is a PhD student at Queensland University and is currently employed as Multi-cultural Policy and Project Worker at the Queensland Council of Social Service. She migrated to Australia from Chile and her first language is Spanish. You can contact Ana Maria at QCOSS,

PO Box 306, Red Hill QLD 4059


Articles from 3 other presenters at the IWSS 20th Anniversary Forum: