Points in response to ABC report 13/8/2020


Recent media has highlighted community concerns with translations for CALD communities that were provided by state and federal government departments. Examples appearing in the media were centred around poor typesetting and allegedly, poorly translated content. This has brought to the fore issues that have been of key concern to translators and interpreters for many years.

Australia pioneered community interpreting and translating as early as the 1970s in response to growing numbers of CALD communities and the ad hoc interpreting from well-meaning community members, that was provided up to the time. It was identified by Governments of the day that a professional service was essential to serve communities and therefore a national accreditation body -NAATI- was formed in 1977 by Commonwealth, State & Territory Governments to test and credential professionals in order to address this need. Access to language services to this day is embedded in national and state access & equity policies.

How is it that after 43 years of professional language services we are facing a scandal around translated information during a crisis?

Australia’s language services industry steadily declined over subsequent decades. As language services were outsourced to private third-party Language Services Providers (LSPs) in the mid 80s, policies designed to ensure equal access to information for those whose first language is not English were largely ignored. This was followed by a decline in pay and conditions – a situation that has lost and fails to attract highly skilled professionals. Source.

Bilingualism or multilingualism do not make a translator.
The assumption that a bilingual professional, such as for example, a GP, possesses equivalent language skills in both languages is flawed.

Bilingual professionals have varying levels of language skill. They are however a crucial part of a multilingual society but should not be charged with the responsibility of broadcasting critical community information to the masses.

Community leaders – whomever they are deemed to be – also have a role to play. However, leaving the dissemination of critical health information is a risk that governments cannot afford to take. Community leaders, even where they are fluent in more than one language, can be influenced by personal and cultural beliefs as well as their role within their community. Impartiality is key to the dissemination of consistent messaging and information.

Mass community information is the responsibility of the governments, their departments and agencies and community organisations that develop and disseminate that information.

Good translation starts with good copy
  • Targeted and meaningful content with the readership in mind
  • There are numerous guides on writing for translation readily available. Basic principles include simple language, avoid jargon and idiomatic language. Writing for CALD communities must take into account a diverse range of literacy levels in native language.
  • Translators report that community translations are rarely, if ever, tailored to CALD readerships. The general approach is to reproduce an English language brochure into multiple languages. This ignores the need to provide meaningful content and does not address the need to create an adaptable layout to accommodate languages, such as right to left reading Arabic. Accessibility of format and platform of presentation are other aspects that are very important to consider. In today’s technology-rich world, different communities use different platforms for communication and information. Some languages are spoken languages only, which means that any information directed to speakers of these languages must be presented appropriately.

Professional translators possess high level language fluency in both source and target languages, literacy and writing skills, comprehension, analytical and transfer skills as well as research skills. They also abide by a Professional Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct. A deep knowledge and understanding of the Australian systems and context from where community information derives, is also a critical skill that Australian community translators have which makes them unique and ideally placed to transfer information into a community language.

It is astounding that the Australian community at large has limited awareness and understanding of the importance of professional translation and interpreting services. This is supported by recent media reports, such as the above, calling on Government to account for a lack of information around COVID-19 leading to the outbreaks in Victoria, both in the housing estates, suburbs and occupations with high concentrations of migrants.

A comparison of the marketing strategies employed by governments to disseminate information on COVID-19 in English and the presentation of the same material to speakers of languages other than English (LOTEs) demonstrates how little is invested in ensuring the same exposure to such information for CALD communities

Translators and interpreters perform a vital community service for little remuneration and negligible respect.

The Victorian Government has taken initial steps in improving remuneration for interpreters in Victoria (2018) but more needs to be done to fix both interpreting and translation services not just in Victoria, but Australia-wide .Federal and State Governments must address the issues of attrition due to  an ageing workforce and poor remuneration and conditions. In spite of attrition we have  a skilled workforce but more needs to be done to build a sustainable language services industry that will attract individuals, particularly younger people and in newer and emerging languages to the professions of interpreting and translating.  

In recent years we have seen the introduction of new both local and overseas LSPs entering the market and increasing competition for government contracts by undercutting and undermining services.

There is no commitment to ensuring that only professionally trained and credentialed translators are engaged. There is no standard for quality assurance.

Adding to the problem is the increasing efficacy of machine translation. These days, Google can produce an excellent translation – sometimes.  Machine translation is a handy tool for personal use and a useful resource for a translator who can turn the machine generated content into readable and meaningful content for the target readership.  Too many providers are turning to machine translation – without a human translator to edit that copy – in order to cut costs thereby compromising quality.

It became apparent during the second wave of Coronavirus in Victoria in July that there was a problem with the availability of translated information. Even where translated information existed, it generally sat on websites, largely inaccessible to members of the community. It is assumed that perhaps, a professional or community leader will download and share this translated information but there is no evidence that this happens on a large scale and even if it does, it does not constitute equitable access. In addition, lockdown has meant that people are not in contact with those support networks that might otherwise be sources of information for them

The way information is currently developed and translated at government and community level is ad hoc and in the hands of each organisation. This results in a plethora of information on some subjects and potentially none in others. Savings come from paying translators, potentially unqualified, less.

This represents a reckless spend of taxpayers’ funds. A more efficient system would see translation budgets spent more effectively on better, accessible and meaningful translated content across more subject areas, produced by competent professionals at proper and fair remuneration.

Translated information has not kept up with the daily updates the wider community receives during COVID.

It is evident that current systems and processes for delivering translated community information are not designed to actually deliver critical information when and where it is most needed.

All this occurred during a time where most translators, willing and ready to work, instead faced a significant decline in work and income.