Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Translating and Interpreting in Social Inclusion Symposium, RMIT Melbourne

Location: RMIT Melbourne


Can I start by acknowledging the Dean of the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies Professor David Hayward, Professor Daniel Gile of the Sorbonne Nouvelle, symposium speakers, distinguished contributors, Mr Sedat Mulayim, RMIT staff, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services with special responsibility for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement, I am very pleased to be here with you this afternoon as I have a genuine interest in your area of expertise.

I’d like to congratulate the RMIT University for organising this Symposium on the role of translators and interpreters in social inclusion.

What a fantastic way to mark the 40th anniversary of translator and interpreter training at RMIT.

Thank you also to the principal sponsors, the Victorian Interpreting and Translating Service and the RMIT’s European Union Research Centre, for making this event possible.

I can see from the day’s agenda that you have had a great opportunity to share your expertise and learn from one another about this topic that is so important to Australia’s social diversity.

Translators and interpreters play an important role in social inclusion because of their role in facilitating communication and access to information to those members of our community who are not proficient in English. In addition to this important role, today I’d also like to consider the role of language and language services.

I want to have a dialogue with the translating and interpreting community and the Australian community more broadly about how to encourage more non-English speakers to become more proficient in English more quickly. This is an important discussion.

The Australian Government wants to achieve the full participation of all Australians in all our society and economy. In my own experience my family learnt at different rates. My mother took longer, as do many women bringing up families.

We must ensure that translating and interpreting services are flexible and meet emerging needs, assist with initial settlement and integration, encourage people to learn English and help to ensure those most vulnerable (or at critical times) get the help they need.

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

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

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 the life of our nation.

To this end, the Australian Government continues to invest in the Adult Migrant English Programme and language and literacy programmes, such as the Skills of Education and Employment programme, to ensure that all Australians have the opportunity to take part in our social and economic life. Australia’s settlement services also play a key role in helping new migrants and those coming to Australia under our humanitarian programs, to become self-reliant and participate in Australian society as soon as possible.

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

A key issue that is often raised with me in those discussions is the importance of learning English: 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 fully in their community, among other things.

English really is the key to social participation and cohesion.

As I mentioned, Australia’s multicultural and settlement programmes focus on assisting migrants to become self-reliant and active members of our community.

This is an ongoing process, with opportunities for improvement. The Australian Government remains committed to further strengthening the outcomes of these programmes, because the benefits will reach all of us.

Active and engaged citizens drive prosperity for themselves, their families and the community and help create a sense of shared purpose.

But participation is not just about the economy.

Civic participation is also about being a valued part of our local communities and feeling connected to the place where we live. It helps build a sense of belonging to both the community and our nation. According to the 2011 Census data, about one in four of us were not born in Australia.

One in five of us speak a language other than English at home and about 3 per cent of Australians say they cannot speak English well, or at all.

Given these figures, it is clear that language and language services play a huge role in the Australian community, both in terms of access and social cohesion.

The Scanlon Foundation defines social cohesion as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper”.

They further state that social cohesion is not simply an outcome, but a continuous process of achieving social harmony.

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

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

As such, it is critical that language services are in place to support people in these circumstances, especially when newly arrived in the country.

For example, the Department of Social Services, or DSS, provides free translating and interpreting services to non-English speaking Australians during their first few years of settlement to help in communication with community organisations and service providers.

On a practical level, DSS is also responsible for the Multicultural Language Service Guidelines for Australian Government Agencies.

The Guidelines give government officers useful tips and tools to better communicate with our diverse communities and foster access to services and social participation.

I understand that you have spent the day considering the important role of language service providers, translators and interpreters in our community.

This topic is of great interest to me and I have recently spent time engaging with the translating and interpreting sector and considering these issues myself.

Conversations that I have had indicate that there is a role for us all to play in strengthening language services.

Translators and interpreters, educators, employers, accreditation bodies, peak bodies, government and non-government stakeholders and community members all play a part, and I am keen to explore this further.

To that end, on 28 November last year I hosted two translating and interpreting sector roundtable discussions at Parliament House in Canberra. You may have heard about these already and possibly even taken part.

A summary of the discussion will soon be available on the DSS website.

The roundtable identified a number of needs within the translating and interpreting sector, but more importantly, it highlighted the position of language services within the broader multicultural context of our nation.

Underlying themes such as social cohesion, productive diversity and social and economic participation are all intrinsic components of our multicultural landscape and language services play an important part in supporting these values.

The Australian Government is currently conducting several other activities in this broader context, including a review of the Adult Migrant English Programme and Skills for Education and Employment programme, as well as reviews of Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National) and two of our key humanitarian settlement programmes, Humanitarian Settlement Services and Complex Case Support.

Over the coming months, I and the Department for Social Services will be working to develop a broader understanding of the wider multicultural context in which translating and interpreting services operate, in order to inform future policy and programme initiatives.

Those of you working in the translating and interpreting field see first-hand the changing face of migration in Australia.

As a result of post-war migration from Europe after World War II, or Vietnam in the 1970s, for example, or through more recent sustained migration from China and India, through to humanitarian entrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, just to name a few examples of how migration has shaped Australia.

The nature of migration patterns means that language services needs are diverse and dynamic.

This presents a great challenge in providing language services to those who need it, when they need it, while still urging people onto an English language learning pathway as soon as practical.

As we shift from a manufacturing based economy to a service based economy, English becomes even more important. This is not to say we must give up our language of birth but it must not be at the expense of not learning English.

While acquiring English is a critical part of life in Australia, it is also vitally important that we value and celebrate multilingualism as a great asset in the global context.

Australians collectively possess a wealth of language skills and knowledge, and we all have a part to play in passing this knowledge onto future generations as well as valuing and encouraging bilingual or multilingual global citizens.

I’d like to finish by sharing a quote by the distinguished, award-winning translator, Richard Pevear. Richard is best known for his translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
He said:

“The translator has to do consciously what the author did instinctively. And yet it must seem instinctive.”

I believe this quote captures the essence of both translating and interpreting.

Translating and interpreting is not merely a point-in-time language transaction.

The ability to accurately convey a message from one language to another requires not just language proficiency, but also cultural sensitivity, contextual awareness and an ability to operate professionally in what often may be stressful or difficult circumstances.

The knowledge, skills and abilities of translators and interpreters are extremely valuable in facilitating communication and I thank you for your continued contribution to the Australian community.

Congratulations once again to the RMIT for 40 successful years of translator and interpreter training.

Thank you.