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Interpreting: A Cultural Conduit? | Language, Clifton, Indigenous, Cultural, Prison, Rsquo, Traditional, Especially | FATSILC, Fed. Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Languages and Culture
Interpreting: A Cultural Conduit? PDF Print E-mail

Making life a lot easier for interpreters in the Kimberly like Clifton has been the advent of Kriol, which was developed back in the thirties when many divergent tribes from the Fitzroy Valley region came together into missions. Clifton touts Kriol as being a ‘bridge’, closing the gap between white and black and a fantastic tool for Indigenous youth to learn language and halt the encroaching loss of connection to their homelands.

Kriol has its critics though, as many believe it will diminish culture for young people in the towns, who learn it from birth and ultimately neglect their traditional tongue. It is seen by some language Elders as the watering down of traditional language in the area, ultimately contributing to the gradual destruction of the language groups it employs. Clifton disagrees, especially when referring to the younger generations, ‘It’s a bridge to further English as well as language, and it’s an improvement for both.’ Seen as a starting point for youth to learn lasting elements of language, while also gaining a grasp of English, Kriol is spoken widely in the Kimberley and often aids Clifton in his role with the interpreter service for the Justice Department in Broome.

Often dealing with a room full of people who speak entirely different dialects, Clifton plays his part in providing everyone with the correct information, acting as a reference point for translation and meaning. His ability to speak in many other tongues including Waltmatjarri, Kukatja, Punuba and Gooniyandi brings him respect from traditional Elders, especially when he’s able to break off into smaller groups and use their language to sensitive issues quickly and tactfully. Sadly, it is pre-sentencing interviews within the prison system which increasingly consume much of Clifton’s time, as he interprets language to lessen the sentences of prisoners often incarcerated as a result of misinterpretation and a lack of understanding.

Recounting a particular sex offence in which the definition of intercourse came into question provides the perfect illustration of the complexities present in traditional language. ‘The word in language could mean talking sexually, acting sexually, it could mean several things,’ ‘eventually he was insinuating it wasn’t intercourse at all.’ It comes then as no surprise that with the absence of the interpreter service, the Indigenous prison population in the far north will remain on the rise. It is absolutely vital then that the correct information is sought and Indigenous people are given the same basic right to a defence as any other citizen who speaks English as a second language.

Interpreting: A Cultural Conduit?
Aboriginal Australia Map
Clifton interestingly sees interpreting as a process of understanding and respect.Recognition of sensitivities in traditional culture needs to be sought before engaging in any language discussion, especially while a visitor to another’s country. Indeed a vast collection of
cultural protocol is closely considered before Clifton begins translation, as the maintenance of respect is essential for collecting the correct information. On a broader scale it’s the building of trust and of relationships, ‘spending time going through the cultural situation, letting your brothers know you’re doing this,’ that yields the fullest crop.

Upon reflecting on his own personal background and experiences, Clifton describes the development and perpetuation of language through cultural events such as funerals, births and smoking ceremonies. ‘Language is so entwined in the process of law and culture that it’s a natural thing.’ In contrast, once thriving cultural activities are slowly being rebuilt by many tribes especially along the south-east coast and in southern Victoria, decimated by years of undocumented genocide. Language is nevertheless being enthusiastically resurrected down south, and Kooris in these areas describe in amazement the positive spiritual connectivity experienced when speaking language on their home
lands after a 150 year absence.

Advancement in language resurrection and maintenance is well underway, and one aspect undergoing improvement is the steady decline in Indigenous prison terms brought about by interpreting. It plays an important role in keeping Aboriginals out of prison, and therefore saves
money, which Clifton suggests could be recycled, ‘They (the WA Justice Department) talk about bringing the cost down…what better way than spend some of that money to lessen the incarceration rate?’ With ongoing support and recognition, interpreting can help bring down the sickening statistic of Indigenous people making up 2 percent of the total population in Australia and 21 percent of its prison population. With people like Clifton and his colleagues at the interpreter’s service at the helm, language can act as a cultural conduit for all Indigenous peoples across the land. It seems that the timeless ebb and flow in Indigenous culture and language will not be lost and will not die, no matter what upheavals, however ghastly, may present themselves.

Clifton Bieundurry is an artist and musician. Visit for more information

by Chris Munro