Interpreters ‘have insight into way language evolves’

17/07/2013 | Rebecca Twose

An interpreter who works in the Australian Aboriginal language of Burarra has revealed that her job provides an insight into how her mother tongue has changed.

Speaking to ABC‘s Northern Territory Country Hour, Jacqueline Phillips explained that she works for the Aboriginal Interpreter Service (AIS). The organisation is part of the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Regional Development and Women’s Policy. It provides services that allow Aboriginal Territorials who don’t speak English as their mother tongue and native English speakers to communicate more effectively with each other. Today, AIS is one of the largest employers of Aboriginal people in Australia and caters for more than 100 different local languages and dialects.

Ms Phillips often works at the Maningrida Bush Courts. Court interpreters have an important job as they help ensure everyone fully understands the trial process and what is being said. Not being able to understand the court can result in a mistrial or even a miscarriage of justice.

Working in hospitals is another of Ms Phillips’ jobs, where she interprets for doctors and nurses. Again, this is a vital role as it helps ensure none of the vital medical information doctors have to pass on to their patients, or vice versa, is lost in translation.

Burarra, Ms Phillips’ mother tongue, is spoken by the people who live in Maningrida in the Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory. There are thought to be approximately 600 speakers of the language, which is broken into several dialects. The interpreter noted that speakers have to be quite specific, as the language includes different words for a man and a woman together, a man and a man together, a young person and an old person, and so on.

In terms of her role as an interpreter, Ms Phillips said that it can still cause confusion. She added “a lot of people” think the interpreter themselves is there to provide advice. In fact, an interpreter should only ever communicate the advice of the person they are interpreting; for instance, by communicating what a doctor is saying in the patient’s mother tongue. Should the interpreter alter the information they receive or miss anything out, they could be putting the patient’s health at risk, or providing the doctor with incorrect information.

Since working as an interpreter, Ms Phillips revealed that she has gained a better insight into her own native language. Today, many people speak a new version of Burarra, but she stated the pronunciation used in this version is faulty. Rather than rolling the R in certain words as the speaker is supposed to, she claimed that speakers instead drag their words. As a result, Ms Phillips makes sure she uses the traditional version of the language at home so her kids learn to speak it correctly. “That’s something I like about working for the Aboriginal Interpreter Service, because it got me to really acknowledge and maintain my language more,” she added.

Looking to the future, Ms Phillips said that she hoped the AIS may one day be rolled out across all of Australia. “The best thing about being an interpreter is actually providing that quality communication, to break that language barrier… and being a voice, especially for the quiet ones who want to speak up and say something,” she concluded.

Australia’s Northern Territory is among the most diverse regions in the world in terms of linguistics, with more than 100 Aboriginal languages alone spoken there. There remain remote settlements in the territory, where members of the community are unlikely to speak English as they grow up. As a result, English skills across the region vary hugely. The AIS reports that more than 60 per cent of Aboriginal people in this region speak one of these native languages as their mother tongue.

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