“Language is who we are” – Indigeneity at FIT 2017 Congress

When Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal dancers performed for us to launch the Congress, they explained things like the “throw-out-sound-through-a-hollow-log” instrument (digeridoo), which sounds like an emu. One man played, the others tapped their fingers and toes; I wondered how d/Deaf people would experience this music. The physicality of the stamping, blowing and percussion made me homesick for Aotearoa/New Zealand, where kapa haka expresses much that seems beyond language. People cried, and all 800+ delegates bodily enacted their response in a standing ovation.

One dance described 200 adults with nets and spears and children with branches, attracting curious dolphins closer to drive fish into shore. They always return some fish to the dolphins, just as Maori acknowledge sources like harakeke and tangaroa. This powerfully foreshadowed Professor Michael Cronin’s keynote address on sustainability (https://wordforwordonline.org/2017/12/11/can-translators-help-save-the-earth/#more-202). Food and survival (lighting a fire using only wood) were key themes. I thought of African dances and songs for pounding grain, similarly communal – and so remote from my life in the digisphere as a piece-worker for international organisations.

More wondering: What would a danced translation be like? The extrovert input-gatherer in me enjoys conferences, but I also find them too left-brain, not reflecting linguists’ rich inner worlds. With a format modelled on English-dominated academia, they make indigenous ways of knowing, learning and teaching invisible, as Professor Anthony Pym mentioned in his keynote address. I was delighted that the programme included workshops by Fosser on ‘Translating music’ and Collinge on interpreting drawings (see Virginia Kwok – https://wordforwordonline.org/2017/09/12/fit-2017-congress-highlights/#more-148).

Next up, representatives of the Aboriginal Interpreter Service of the Northern Territory government spoke to the title ‘Don’t be shame! Building the confidence to be an Aboriginal interpreter,’ echoing NZSTI Fellow Dr Sabine Fenton on the ihi of the translator in the nineties.

The service works in 100 languages with 381 staff, for whom English may be the second, third or fourth language, Director Colleen Rosas told us. The police caution has been translated into 18 languages, and she dreams of “getting work done on informed consent.”

Because others “think there is only one Aboriginal language”, Rosas helps the Australian Broadcasting Corporation explain language and cultural matters: “There are skin systems.” for example. “One family name is shared by three to four hundred people. You know the people you are interpreting for, so we do lots of ethics training.” English is the seventh language in interpreter Nadyezhda Pozzana’s country. Her immediate family numbers 500 and there are 10,000 in her wider family.

Maggie Napurrula Burns became an interpreter because she saw barriers everywhere, especially in the legal world. She enjoys reading bulletins for the ABC indigenous news service, “helping them to engage with non-indigenous people.”

Theresa Napurrula Ross: “When non-Aboriginal people came, I would help my mother understand them. I didn’t know I was interpreting.” Now a professional cultural mediator, she reads the news (“People are glad to finally understand what the government is doing”), publicises massacre histories in the Canberra museum, and worked for a decade on the Walpiri Bible. She aspires “to be confident”; I feel she already is, asking thought-provoking questions like, “Who needs the interpreter? The Aboriginal, or the client?” and advocating for peers like her colleague in Alice Springs who, when working in a prison, was assumed to be a convict and ordered into a cell.

Many presenters acknowledged “the traditional owners of the land”, which contrasted, for me, with the guardianship concept and Treaty-based cooperation in my own country. But we cannot be smug about our bi-cultural story, as we have only one indigenous language to consider, while Australia has about 100 and Canada and the United States at least 56. South Africa has 11 official languages to deal with, and a lingua franca that is only the fifth ‘most spoken’ by population.

  1. Godbout spoke on professional identity formation and the role of faculty in the formation of translators in Canada as they integrate them into a ‘community of practice’. The Canadian ‘professional’ context, however, is restricted to French and English in a university setting. The country’s 60 indigenous languages – in the Inuit, First Nations and Michif (Métis) language families – were again invisible. Canada’s translation faculty could strengthen the nation’s reconciliation journey by learning from the Northern Territories government.
  2. Kruger gave a bibliography-based quantitative translation history of indigenous and minority languages in children’s book publishing in South Africa, where English and Afrikaans dominate in schools, but a 2016 curriculum statement made bi-lingual education in African languages compulsory. More school books are being published in African languages; these are mostly translations. Outside the education market, Afrikaans dominates. Only 2-3% of children’s fiction books are in African languages, even though these have the most speakers, and there are almost no non-fiction children’s books.

I longed for more question/discussion time and a panel that would include representatives of bi-lingual publishers from across the Tasman and further afield. That would have been enriching for everyone, as well as a fabulous networking opportunity.

In a triennial Congress representing 100,000 translators, interpreters and terminologists, there was so much ground to cover that the 70+ presentations could not register the significance of NAIDOC week, Australia-wide celebrations of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, celebrated just a month earlier. That’s a pity, because the theme for the week was “Our Languages Matter.” As Rosas said of Aboriginal interpreters, “Language is who we are.” This would be true for most congress delegates, as languages are not just our work, but part of our identity. However, indigenous linguists carry an additional burden of language development and revitalisation. FIT has consultative status with UNESCO as a partner in its goals, including the 17 sustainable development goals. Indigenous peoples have a strong voice here, and we have a responsibility, and the official status, to contribute to language development.

In this context, I hope that statements by two key leaders as the Congress closed will reverberate: Pym reflected with humility on seeing the culture of his country of origin through fresh eyes, and the new president of FIT, Kevin Quirk, emphasised the importance of storytelling, poetry, metaphor and dance, motivating and moving us with a poem of his own creation.

by Claire Loftus



Photo: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/mapping-indigenous-languages-canada

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