(Not) lost in translation: Arts PhD student Adolfo Gentile explores the establishment of an Australian institution

(Not) lost in translation: Arts PhD student Adolfo Gentile explores the establishment of an Australian institution

Adolfo Gentile is about to complete his PhD at Monash University: ‘A policy focused examination of the establishment of the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) in Australia’. NAATI is the body responsible for setting and monitoring the standards for the translating and interpreting profession in Australia.

In this interview, Adolfo talks about his long and varied career in the translating and interpreting field, Australia’s post-war migration program and how translating and interpreting services began to be valued and play a crucial role in today’s Australia.


Why did you choose to undertake a PhD looking at the establishment of NAATI?

I’ve been involved in the interpreting and translating scene since its inception in Australia in 1975.  I had the good fortune of being exposed to many facets of it, which is unusual: I was and am a practitioner, a teacher, and then I became a researcher. I was also appointed to the chair of the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI), which gave me a totally different view of the profession.

I then decided to embark on a different career and became a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal. I spent 16 years there where the frequency of use of interpreters is very high. So I found myself in the role of recipient of the services of interpreters which gave me another different view that has influenced my teaching, work and research.

In 2012, having nominally retired from the workforce, I got this mad idea to do a PhD.  I became aware that the cultural history of NAATI was disappearing. I thought there must be some way of formalising and recording what has happened in relation to this organisation in this country, because it was a world first when it was set up in 1977. I thought it was a pity that part of Australia’s cultural history was disappearing.

In my PhD I’m exploring the establishment of NAATI in a policy focused manner. It’s not recounting what happened, but trying to see why it happened when it happened. I’m interested to know why did this happen in this country and why then? Who were the players? Why did they do it? How did they come to do it? And, if there’s any explanatory model to show that this proceeded along certain lines that had been agreed upon by other scholars in the policy area, that helps to elucidate and explain what happened and the way it happened.


How was NAATI a world-first and how is it different to similar organisations around the world now?

NAATI was the first accreditation organisation anywhere for interpreters and translators. It deals with a huge number of languages, more than other similar organisations that have set themselves up since. NAATI tests in something like 75 non-Indigenous languages and another 25 Indigenous languages, which is quite incredible, – it also tests at different levels.


What kind of impact do you hope to make with your research?

Firstly, that we should learn from the lessons of the past. Secondly, other countries –who are struggling with managing services for migrants and refugees at the moment – might avoid pitfalls and costly experiments by taking heed of a number of things that come out of this research.


What was happening in Australia that pushed the need for professionalising translation services?

Since WWII there’s been a massive immigration program in Australia. The imperative of labour requirements went along with that of nation-building, thus the immigration program was built around those parameters.  It was a nation-building program in that the migrants who came here became almost indistinguishable, legally speaking, from any citizen, right from the moment they got off the boat (as it was then mostly). Australia originally wanted Anglo Saxons, then they started allowing migration from countries like Poland, the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Vietnam etc. They didn’t immediately reflect on what the consequences would be, but they still thought these people would take a while to settle and then they would be indistinguishable from the British stock.

There was, technically, no assessment of what happens to people’s cultures when they migrate, what happens to people’s language when they migrate, because they assumed they would learn English. So, about 20 years from the beginning of the mass migration things started to crop up which began to get some notice in the broader community, as a result of the identification of issues or problems by social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, educational psychologists and people of that nature.

There were people who were acting as ‘interpreters’ and these doctors, nurses and educationalists were astute enough to complain about that, saying, ‘This is not good enough. These people do what they do but it’s not professional, they’re not qualified, they don’t know anything about the subject they’re interpreting. We’re having kids being put in very difficult positions of interpreting for their parents in situations that they should never have been exposed to and apart from that, they don’t know anything about what they’re talking about, because it’s intellectually beyond their capacity.’


How did these services help to empower migrant communities and improve communication?

People started writing about this in the ‘50s – sporadically. But then in the ’70s – along with other developments – a more concerted effort was made to actually get the migrants to express themselves, to actually hear their voice, and it was formalised in ’78 with the creation of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, where there was a channel. But before this channel it was sporadic. The unions did take up some issues, especially to do with a bit of self-interest to get more members in the union, but also to deal with the industrial accidents and things that were going on at the time.


Can you give some examples of why it’s important to have proper professional standards in interpreting and translating?

There were people who had the wrong kidney removed; there were people sentenced to jail for crimes they didn’t commit – just because the so-called interpreter didn’t know the difference between manslaughter and murder. It’s not just theoretical.

I hasten to say that this is not current stuff. There are a lot more checks and balances now.  But, in the past there were people who went in for a curette and came out with a hysterectomy, that kind of gross problem. They are things that attract attention, but there are also more subtle things that happen when you have an unqualified and indeed incompetent interpreter – what you are denied, in many instances, are your human rights.


There are really tangible outcomes to all this and Australia seems to be leading the way?

Australia is rather unique in the world because the development of its interpreting and translating was due to its migration program. This is certainly not the case in other countries where it’s more likely to be diplomacy or business. NAATI’s genesis was driven more by immigration than anything else and in practice still is, because, by far, the number of jobs that are available are to do with what’s being called ‘community interpreting’.  NAATI is a world leader in this field.

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