Transcript by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

European Network of Public Service Interpreters (ENPSIT) conference: Beating Babel in Multilingual Service Settings

Location: Paris

Presentation by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General and the Minister for Social Services.

Good morning. Can I start by acknowledging:

  • Pascal Rillof, President of the European Network of Public Service Interpreters, and
  • Christine Clerici, President of the University of Paris Diderot.

As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services with special responsibility for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, I am very pleased to be able to participate in this conference, not only because of my portfolio responsibility for the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters Ltd, but as an area in which I have had a genuine interest over many years.

I would like to thank the European Network of Public Service Interpreters for organising this conference.

I am very sorry that I cannot be with you. Due to additional portfolio responsibilities allocated to me as Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney General last week, I regret that I could no longer travel to Paris to be with you.

Language has been an important part of my life.

My parents came to Australia from southern Italy in the 1950s. They spoke no English. I grew up speaking Italian at home, as did many children of post-war migrants.

I learnt English at school. On my first day at kindergarten, only three children in the class spoke English and I was not one of them. But within three months we were all speaking and singing in English!

Being bilingual at a young age was very important in our household. I often found myself being translator for my parents, family and other people who needed help.

I had the opportunity to study languages at high school and then at university where, in addition to a Bachelor of Laws, I also graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics and European Languages.

In addition to my native Italian, I also speak some French and Spanish which has been invaluable to me, especially in my 30 year involvement in multicultural and community activities.

Australia has a long and impressive migration history. In fact, our national story is fundamentally and predominantly one of the settlement of peoples.

From our indigenous origins, to the British colonisation and wave after wave of migrant arrivals thereafter.

A huge number of migrants arrived in Australia during the post-war period, and over the following two decades. There were 223,000 migrants, including my parents, from Italy; 128,000 from Greece; 100,000 from the Netherlands; 95,000 from Germany and many more thousands from the Baltic states and the former Yugoslavia.

The post-war migration period peaked in 1969, with the arrival of 185,000 permanent settlers. By 1971, one in three Australians was a post-war migrant or the child of one, including me.

Since then we have seen Indo-Chinese migrants arrive during the 1970s and 80s, Eastern Europeans and people from the Sub Continent during the 90s and more recently, migrants and humanitarian entrants from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

With so many Australians born overseas, it is no surprise that we are a land of great linguistic diversity.

We identify with about 300 ethnicities and speak almost as many languages, including indigenous languages.

Close to one in five of us speaks a language other than English at home. However, 3% of Australians say they cannot speak English or do not speak it well. I suspect this is not a surprise to many of you.

Bilingual people, particularly interpreters and translators, have the unique ability to communicate with people who have different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, bridge the gap between them, and promote understanding and unity.

As French actor and writer Moliere said:

Don’t appear so scholarly, pray. Humanise your talk, and speak to be understood.

These are extremely important aspects of a cohesive community, and therefore those skills are valued greatly.

Today, 45 per cent of Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was. I am proud to be one of them.

Australia’s successful multicultural society is founded on a commitment to the common elements that unite us, combined with a respect for, and understanding of, our social and religious differences.

To ensure this happens properly, it is important that communication between the state and its citizens is effective and constant. Community translation services help to empower our citizens to engage and remain informed.

The work of community translators cannot be over-stated.

As Nelson Mandela once said:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.

It is indeed a joy to speak, hear and write the language of your family – the language of your history. It is also a joy to speak, hear and write the language of your future.

Each wave of migration has given us a better understanding of where we have come from, and where we are going. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths.

We are recognised internationally as one of the most socially cohesive nations on Earth.

This success is due in part to the importance placed on creating fast and effective pathways to learning English, our shared language.

As the daughter of migrants, I know how important it is to be heard and understood – to feel that you belong.

As Leonardo da Vinci said:

the noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.

In my role I spend a lot of time engaging with multicultural community leaders and settlement service providers who work closely with migrants and with migrants themselves.

A key issue that is often raised with me in those discussions is the importance of the initial settlement period, followed by the need to learn English.

Since 1945, Australia has welcomed 7.5 million migrants including 800,000 under our humanitarian programme.

Australia’s settlement services play a key role in helping new migrants, and those coming to Australia under our humanitarian programs, become self-reliant and participate in Australian society as soon as possible.

Recognising that humanitarian entrants often face additional challenges to those faced by other migrants, the Australian Government funds the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme to provide specialised assistance during their initial settlement period.

Service providers work with clients to assess and identify their needs and deliver a tailored package of services to meet them.

Services include reception upon arrival at the airport, help with finding accommodation, basic household goods, orientation and induction and assistance to register with government services, banks and schools.

Humanitarian entrants and other eligible migrants with low English language proficiency are also supported by Settlement Grants.

These are targeted towards those communities and locations in greatest need of settlement assistance, and are responsive to changing settlement patterns and needs.

As I mentioned earlier, after the initial settlement period, many new migrants focus their energy on learning English.

This is important for all new migrants – for parents wanting to communicate with their children’s teachers at school; for those seeking language skills to find a job; and for isolated community members who’d like to get to know their neighbours and participate more fully in their community.

I believe that language – in Australia’s case English – is the key to social participation and cohesion.

While governments and civil society groups play a powerful role in supporting this aim, it is very important that individuals use all available opportunities to learn our national language, contribute to their local communities and be part of Australia.

We celebrate diversity and want people to acknowledge and respect their cultural identities, but communities and individuals can become isolated unless they speak the national tongue.

The Australian Government substantially invests in assisting new arrivals and jobseekers to learn English through the Adult Migrant English Programme (AMEP) and the Skills for Education and Employment programme.

The AMEP provides up to 510 hours of free English language tuition to eligible migrants and humanitarian entrants within their first five years in Australia.

The aim of AMEP is to ensure new arrivals learn basic English skills to assist them successfully settle and confidently participate socially and economically in Australia.

AMEP provides a range of flexible options.

This includes full-time or part-time study options, daytime and evening classes; distance learning; and a home tutor scheme with trained volunteers.

AMEP offers support services to facilitate attendance and participation in the programme. For example: free childcare for participants with young children; pathways counselling to provide guidance and support through AMEP and post-programme pathways advice.

The Skills for Education and Employment programme provides up to 800 hours of language, literacy and numeracy training to eligible job seekers who are having difficulties finding employment due to low literacy, numeracy or English language competency.

Our aspiration is that all Australians have the opportunity to learn English, including those who were born overseas and migrated.

However, it is widely recognised that language learning can be a lengthy process and people can face numerous barriers in achieving proficiency.

To assist, the Australian Government provides free translating and interpreting services to non-English speaking Australians during their first few years of settlement to help them communicate with community organisations and service providers.

We also offer free translations of key documents to eligible clients through the Free Translating Service. Within the first two years of arriving in Australia, eligible clients can have up to 10 personal documents translated into English.

In recent times, the translation of documents such as academic transcripts and employment references has helped 7,000 people. Around 12,000 documents were translated in the last financial year alone.

The most common documents translated through this service include education certificates, birth records and drivers licences.

These documents are a necessary part of life in Australia, and facilitating their translation helps with employment and education opportunities.

The Australian Government has a core commitment to principles of Access and Equity through its Multicultural Access and Equity Policy to ensure that programmes and services are responsive to the needs of Australia’s multicultural communities.

From my community work, and my numerous interactions with multicultural communities over 30 years, I know that it is not just new migrants that depend on language services.

Increasingly, we are seeing established communities, particularly our older communities calling on these services. Australia is home to more than 600,000 people over the age of 65 years who were born overseas, and this figure will continue to grow.

As this cohort ages, their needs become more acute and their need to access community translation services will increase.

One of the most important areas for translation is health care.

One such issue close to my heart is finding appropriate care for older Australians, including people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Some 20% of people aged over 65 were born outside Australia.

Aged care must be delivered in a way that is responsive to the culture, language and beliefs of different communities, especially the individualised aged care needed by all Australians as we grow older.

With cultural and religious diversity, the concept of language attrition due to ageing is becoming more widely understood. This has a real impact on the provision of language services in the aged care sector.

Migrants who have lived in Australia for years, and mastered a good level of English proficiency, may find themselves reverting back to their first language as they age.

The benefits of translating and interpreting services is not limited to the non-English speaker and extends to the other party involved in the care setting.

For instance, it is important for a doctor communicating with a patient to ensure that instructions are clearly understood, especially with prescription medications and dosages and obtaining informed consent.

Similarly, there is an inherent benefit of using an appropriately skilled and credentialed interpreter in courtroom settings, to ensure the accuracy of proceedings and minimise the risk of aborted trials and re-trials due to miscommunication.

We rely on language service for a range of reasons in various circumstances, and the challenge is to ensure that translating and interpreting services are flexible enough to meet the needs of the individual.

Language services must be robust enough to meet emerging needs and assist with initial settlement and integration while still encouraging people to learn English.

They are also available for the most vulnerable to get the help they need at critical times. In Australia quality language services are available to those who need it when they need it.

The quality of services is vital in the procurement and provision of translating and interpreting services in Australia.

The accreditation of Australian translators and interpreters is managed by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI).

Established by the Australian Government in 1977, NAATI is the national standards and accreditation body for translators and interpreters. It is the only agency that issues accreditations for people who wish to work in these professions in Australia.

NAATI is owned jointly by the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments and is governed by a Board of Directors appointed by the governments.

The primary role of NAATI is to set, maintain and promote high national standards in translating and interpreting. It also implements a national quality assurance system for credentialing practitioners who meet those standards.

NAATI services are available through offices in every State and Territory of Australia and in New Zealand.

NAATI credentialed interpreters are bound by the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators Code of Ethics, including remaining impartial in fulfilling their interpreting role. The Code provides an assurance of quality and credibility to agencies employing NAATI credentialed professionals.

In Australia, government is the largest purchaser of translating and interpreting services. As such, the government has a keen interest in obtaining quality services that represent good value for money.

To this end, the Department of Social Services maintains the Multicultural Language Services Guidelines for Australian Government Agencies.

The guidelines provide overarching advice to officers in the Australian Public Service on policies and procedures relating to the use of language services.

The guidelines advise officers to engage NAATI accredited translators and interpreters wherever possible. Bilingual workers are also employed; however they do not generally carry out translating and interpreting tasks unless they also hold an appropriate NAATI credential.

The Australian Government greatly values the contribution that NAATI, and indeed all language service providers make to our country.

Late last year, I hosted the roundtables on translation and interpretation, bringing together key stakeholders in this sector. The roundtables were also accompanied by an extensive consultation process with over 100 submissions provided to the Government.

The issues of concern that are being raised by stakeholders in the translating and interpreting industry, include:

  • pay and conditions for interpreters (in particular) and translators;
  • subsequent low retention rates of qualified practitioners;
  • difficultly in sourcing qualified practitioners in new and emerging languages; and
  • concerns about the de-professionalisation of the industry through the engagement of non-qualified practitioners to perform work.

The Australian Government values the work that our translators and interpreters do. Community translation is an essential service.

I applaud all language service providers for the valuable contributions they are no doubt making in their respective countries.

Spanish writer, translator and philosopher Mariano Antol?n Rato eloquently endorsed this when he said:

“Translation is one of the few human activities in which the impossible occurs by principle.”

It’s been my privilege to share some of my knowledge and experience with you today, and explore in some detail what is happening in Australia.

I wish you all the best conference.

Thank you.