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Interpreting in Action....Barry McDonald | Interpreting, Aboriginal, Teaching, Interpreter, Between, Australia, Students, Communication | FATSILC, Fed. Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Languages and Cu
Interpreting in Action....Barry McDonald PDF Print E-mail

Barry McDonald, lecturer for TAFE S.A.’s Diploma of Interpreting (Aboriginal Languages), spoke with Voice of the Land recently. He spoke of the need for greater communication between Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians, and outlined the shape of his work in interpreting, his country relationships, and of the great support the program has received since it began in 2006.

“It’s really fantastic!” he said, “People moved heaven and earth to get it going and they’ve done a wonderful job.” In 2010, seven students graduated with the Diploma of Interpreting and in 2011, five further students graduated, with more on the way. The program has flourished with the support of the South Australian Government, TAFE S.A. generally, and the APY Lands TAFE. “The community lecturers living on communities on the Lands support our program really strongly and facilitate students to get on the computer at certain times to participate in their teaching sessions. So everybody’s got their shoulder to the wheel. The goodwill is there.”

TAFE S.A.’s program caters for students who speak any Aboriginal language, but particularly for speakers of Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara. This includes face-to-face teaching, not just on the APY lands, but in rural areas like Coober Pedy and Port Augusta and on the west coast. Plus there’s the option of learning online if students find it difficult to make it to class. Graduates can start working in the casual on-call style of interpreting work, which suits some people, or there are opportunities for more permanent work. Interpreters could also help with dictionary creation, production of literacy resources in language, teaching language in schools, and with cross-cultural courses. South Australia doesn’t yet have an Aboriginal Interpreting Service, like the Northern Territory and Western Australia, but this will be happening soon.

Early Days

I was teaching at the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) in Alice Springs in their literacy and numeracy program until I graduated to interpreter training. You know what it’s like in Central Australia— large turnover of staff, people coming and going—you often get put into a situation that you normally wouldn’t be qualified for anywhere else. I learned on the job, and I’m still doing interpreter training. I’m not an interpreter, by the way. But my experience and my relationships do qualify me for the job I have at the moment, which I couldn’t do on my own—I need Aboriginal language speaking colleagues to do the job with me. I think this is entirely fitting considering we’re talking about interpreting between Aboriginal languages and English.

I met Ina Scales through the course. She came in as a student. She’d been interested in interpreter training before and had contacted our team at IAD. When the interpreting training was offered on the APY lands, she was living at Pipalyatjara, her homeland. She took up the offer. She was one of our first students, starting with us in 2006. She persevered. This is really Ina’s calling—language and education. She completed her qualification and we offered her the opportunity of working as a co-teacher and she took that on.

She’s really committed to teaching this course. It’s something she’s familiar with, she’s a really good interpreter. And she’s a very good communicator. She’s very bicultural. And she also has a marvellous spirit, her personal qualities are really outstanding. We work very closely together, understand each other, we’ve travelled a lot together, we’ve been through a lot together. It’s a good teaching team. Ina is just finishing her Certificate IV in TAE, so she’ll have that qualification in teaching as well. And so has one of our other students, Rosemary Lester, who is also completing a teaching degree. And working with Ina and myself we have Georgina Nou, a very experienced and creative teacher who has great expertise in the area of online education.


I guess my main interest—if I wrapped up my experience and my relationship and my knowledge and my outlook on the world—I could probably summarise under a heading of ‘Relationship with Land’, that there is a bigger entity here that non-Indigenous people don’t recognise or acknowledge enough or get in tune with or in touch with, that I think is really important.

I did a speech at the launch of MK Turner’s book (Iwenhe Tyerrtye, see previous issue of Voice of the Land) called ‘The Land needs words’. That line was taken from one of the chapters of the book. Basically I was talking about the fact that overarching Aboriginality and non-Indigeneity in Australia—is the presence of the Land. And that in the presence of the Land, maybe there is room for recognising some relationship, not only between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and obviously between Aboriginal Australians and the Land, but also between non-Indigenous Australians and the Land. This is a very vexed issue, and there’s a lot of Aboriginal people I know who would, very understandably, question that non-Indigenous people can have a relationship with the Land.

This dialogue is very stressful because it initiates a polemic—feelings and antagonisms—so I’m always very careful speaking about it but I think it’s a hugely important thing. Because I really think what that goes to is an increased acknowledgement of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal people, and vice versa. And maybe an increased desire to really communicate in an authentic way. And that communication all round, you’ve got two groups of people and the whole Land encapsulating everybody, and communication being improved is a really important thing. That’s my gig, really.

Interpreting in Action

Everybody’s got examples where justice isn’t done, let’s say. I worked in an Alice Springs jail, teaching and interpreting, to prisoners. The number of prisoners that told me they were there because of bad interpreting was legion. Now, you could take that with a grain of salt, of course, but interpreting in court and in the police station is incredibly important. The stakes are very high. An Aboriginal person can be incarcerated, separated from country, separated from family, and the possible consequences of that were made very clear in the Deaths in Custody report.

There was a recent case in one Australian state where the lack of interpreting might have resulted in the premature death of an older woman and perhaps the death of a baby. There are enquiries going ahead right now. The stakes are very high. Judges complain that because of the lack of interpreters, cases have to be held over, and the prisoner stays remanded in custody until an interpreter can be found, a new date set, so the prisoner is spending a lot of time in jail before he or she gets a hearing, which is terrible. People can be kept in cells for weeks on end for the lack of an interpreter.

In Aboriginal Australia, particularly in the Northern Territory and South Australia, in recent years the increased need for—or the continuing lack of—interpreters has been highlighted in the media. And there’s been criticism from Supreme Court judges: ‘How long do we have to put up with this incredible situation where we have the accused Aboriginal people in front of us who don’t have the benefit of an interpreter?’ We’ve had the Mullighan Report in South Australia and the Little Children Are Sacred report in the Territory, and both made recommendations for interpreters. And we’ve had the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report from this year that Commonwealth agencies must use interpreters much more than they do. So the scene is that we need interpreters so that mainstream Australia and Indigenous Australia can communicate a lot more easily, better, effectively and authentically.

Interpreting is an ancient profession. And the skills and the protocols are pretty much the same across the board for all languages. Obviously, the skeletal definition of interpreting is that an interpreter is somebody who is bicultural and bilingual, and can facilitate a conversation between two people who don’t speak the same language. The interpreter is there doing the translations for each party and hopefully doing them as accurately as possible. And without any partiality, so they’re utterly impartial and passing the messages between the people accurately and openly. That’s the ideal, but things happen a little bit differently in practice.

I’ve never liked the word authenticity, but recently I’ve started using it a bit. I think it means ‘honest’. And it means ‘from within yourself’. And it means ‘maintaining your own integrity in that communication’. And communicating as equals, respectfully, acknowledging that other person’s individuality, your own individuality, and bringing it to the communication without political agendas, just an honest get together. That’s idealistic, yeah. But I think there’s so much—especially politically—that gets in the way of open and honest communication.

For more information about TAFE S.A.’s Diploma of Interpreting (Aboriginal Languages) visit