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The retention of Auslan interpreters

By Dr Angela Dillon

The discussion ‘Are there sufficient Auslan/English interpreters to furnish our community?’ resurfaces repeatedly within our industry. Regular interpreter users are acutely aware of difficulties in accessing interpreters when needed. Undoubtedly, solutions to this issue are multifaceted, but I believe that the retention of interpreters, and fostering career longevity are a big part of the solution.

I have seen numerous accomplished colleagues come and go over the years. Career attrition is normal, particularly considering the nature of the job and its inherent strains, but I suspect that something may be happening in the field that is exacerbating this attrition.

Having observed this situation from several angles: as consumer, interpreter practitioner, and interpreter trainer, I sense a mismatch between what I see, experience, and hear anecdotally from colleagues. It surprises me when colleagues tell me that they are exhausted and overloaded with work, while others report insufficient work and require adjunct employment to supplement their incomes.

I conducted a very small scale (and unscientific) straw-poll to glean some people’s experiences and views, and factors that might contribute to interpreters leaving, or remaining in, the field. Nine people (a mixture of experienced still-working interpreters; early-career interpreters, and people who had left their interpreting careers) were invited to complete a simple, anonymous Survey Monkey.

Seven people responded. The survey comprised three open questions:

  1. If you have continued working as an interpreter, what three main things have made you continue working as an interpreter?
  2. If you have stopped working as an interpreter, or thought about stopping, what three main things have made you leave or consider leaving you interpreting career?
  3. Do you want to make any comments about factors that may support or hinder interpreters’ decisions to remain in their career, or about the apparent shortage of interpreters?

Respecting word limitations, I will only discuss the two most consistently reported reasons for people considering leaving or leaving, the profession: the “lack of permanent jobs”, and “[o]ther Interpreters [sic]...lack of support and or team work”.

A “lack of regular bookings each week”, and beliefs that there is an imbalance of work distribution featured heavily. Asserting that “[a]gencies definitely seem to favour interpreters”, one interpreter went on to say that “…sometimes I feel like just throwing in the towel when I hear of yet another job that I was capable of but was not offered”.

Questioning the notion of there being “…a shortage of interpreters as such”, the respondent perceives “…a monopoly on many jobs by a small group of interpreters, and agencies who don't explore all options or put feelers out widely enough…The hierarchy of interpreters often means job opportunities and offers are limited”.

Of the six people who responded to questions regarding why they have either left, or considered leaving their career, all mentioned adverse relationships with colleagues as a factor. Reasons cited related to “[b]ullying”, and “politics amongst the interpreting fraternity”. Comments included:

  • “…disconcerting when other interpreters you are
  • working with are either negative or confrontational”;
  • “…nonconstructive criticism…”;
  • “…negative feedback from interpreters in power positions”, and
  • “Lack of support from colleagues who feel threatened by people who are more skilled or who are potential 'threats' to their own income…who…are unable to reflect on their own practice and behaviours and the effect these have on their colleagues”.

This survey yielded invaluable positive data, on which I would like to have expanded, but space does not allow. Respondents’ views were strongly (and vehemently) expressed, and thus warrant our listening, because these feelings are affecting career longevity and fulfilment. As an interpreter trainer, I am privileged to share the joy and excitement that students bring when embarking on their interpreting careers.

It is my dearest wish that we nurture this positivity, and that these newcomers experience career longevity, buoyed by those supportive, generous and kind colleagues that I know. After all, as one respondent said “Mutual teamwork makes for the best outcome for the deaf client”.

Dr. Angela Dillon has been an accredited Auslan/English interpreter since 1987, during which time she has worked within a wide range of contexts. She currently works as an interpreter trainer in TAFE SA’s Diploma of Interpreting, with both hearing and Deaf interpreting students, and also continues to work in the field. Angela’s PhD focusses on South Australian print media discourse and debates about sign language use and deaf education from the 1970s-2000s. This article was originally published in the ASLIA e-update and is reproduced with permission.

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ANU research shows effects of interpreter under use in health consults

By Associate Professor Christine Phillips

Every day Australian doctors see patients whose spoken English can be insufficient to communicate their symptoms or to understand their treatment. Sometimes the person’s lack of English is obvious to everyone. Often the person can talk in English but may struggle to understand technical language. Occasionally people’s command of English has deteriorated due to age or illness. 20 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English and by their own estimate 16 per cent of them speak English poorly. Australia is one of the world’s most multilingual countries and at the same time one of the most monolingual.

Over 200 languages are spoken in this country and yet 80 per cent of us can only speak English. The linguistic diversity of the population is so great that no matter how multilingual the doctor is the languages of doctor and patient rarely match. Most doctors will need to make a decision about whether or not to use an interpreter every day. Here is one day in a typical general practice in a suburb, the one where I work. The practice has eight doctors, two nurses, and around 9000 patients. Although the identifying details have been altered all of these are real cases.

10.30 am.

Dr Hut Win a junior doctor training to be a General Practitioner (GP) calls me into his room. He stares glumly at his elderly patient Sara who has booked to see him because she thought he spoke her language, the Myanmar language. ‘My parents are from Myanmar but I can only speak kitchen Myanmar language’.

He and Sara make small talk about food for four minutes while I ring the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National). The interpreter comes on line and Dr Win is able to work out that Sara has gastritis. He explains how to test for bacteria in her stomach. Four minutes doesn’t sound like much but that’s more than a quarter of the allocated consultation time. Time is one of the major reasons cited by doctors for not using interpreters.

Efficient medical practices delegate contacting interpreters to the front-office staff. Dr Win has learned to clarify before the consultation begins that he needs an interpreter, ask the patient to wait while reception contacts TIS National, and use that four minutes to read the patient notes and prepare himself.

12.30 pm.

I’m called by the nurse to see Amina who has presented with a sore belly after having her first baby six weeks ago by caesarean section. Her young husband hovers in the background. If they had been in their home country an extended family of aunties and sisters would now be helping her to recover from surgery and care for her baby son.

The nurse shows me the problem; Amina’s wound still has the staples used to close it. I stare aghast at the angry wound with its ridges of infected skin, trying to bury the metal staples. These should have come out five weeks ago. When she was discharged from hospital the staff had explained using Google Translate that she had to get the staples removed in ten days. Amina had not understood and had been too embarrassed to say so.

2 pm.

I have a regular appointment with Bruno who has started psychiatric treatment for depression and wishes to speak about his experiences in the war ten years ago. We have booked an on-site interpreter who speaks his language. The interpreter crosses her arms, bows her head, and becomes Bruno’s words as he speaks of massacres. I wonder about the impact on the interpreter of living through Bruno’s war vicariously, and we debrief for a few minutes afterwards.

4 pm.

The receptionist calls. Hana, who has been in the country for five months stands crying at the front desk with a three year old child in her arms. Her daughter has ’eaten an electric’. We have a huddled consultation with a phone interpreter in the treatment room. The child has swallowed the lithium battery from a toy. It will need to be removed by an endoscope under general anaesthetic. Hana wants to wait till her husband, who speaks better English, comes home from work. But there’s no time to waste. The practice pays for a taxi, and through the interpreter the nurse explains the urgency of the situation. I ring the hospital to say they will need to get an interpreter on the phone for the consultation.

Not every consultation where the person has limited English will need a professional interpreter. Sometimes the situation is of low acuity and the patient can make themselves understood. For example, in Amina’s case I had rarely used interpreters as her general English was sufficient to manage a cough or a Centrelink certificate. There is no doubt however that interpreters are underused in Australian medical practice. For every 100 consultations of a patient who speaks poor English, only one will a professional interpreter be used.

There are four circumstances where doctors looking after people, whose command of English may be—at that moment—suspect, must think of using a professional interpreter, and have a defensible reason for not using one. These situations are consent, complexity, crisis and to assess the competence of the patient to make decisions on their own behalf. The doctors who perform the endoscopy and general anaesthetic on Hana’s daughter who swallowed the battery will need to use an interpreter to ensure that Hana consents to the procedure. Performing a procedure without informed consent is an assault.

Yet all too often people with limited English proficiency are asked to sign a paper thrust in front of them, or have it explained by a family member whose technical English may be very limited. A recent investigation of refugees’ accounts of surgical treatments uncovered accounts of patients who had operations including a tubal ligation, a gall bladder removal, and dental extractions with no understanding of the procedure they had ’consented’ to.

Amina’s discharge instructions are an example of a complex message that warranted an interpreter. Even though Amina spoke some English, her understanding was compromised because she was recovering from a major procedure, and she had no prior experience of wound staples. Denied the opportunity to clarify, Amina left hospital believing that staples could be left in permanently. Complexity is also the reason that pharmacists can access TIS National.

Mistakes in medication dosage can have major impacts on the patient, as in a case in our study of a patient who overdosed on a medication that was to be taken intermittently, resulting in major neurological side-effects. In a crisis professional interpreters are often overlooked in favour of any available person. In a famous case in the United States of America, a nine-year-old child who suffered a severe reaction to a medication was herself used as interpreter in the emergency department.

Her sixteen-year-old brother was subsequently co-opted into interpreting to their parents when she died. Failure to use an interpreter in a crisis is an indefensible approach when there is a 24-hour priority phone line to access interpreters. Without an interpreter we would not have understood what had happened to Hana’s child, nor would we have been able to convey the urgency of treatment.

On the way home from work I called into a nursing home to see Wilf, an octogenarian whose ability to speak English, his third language, had declined as he aged. 42 per cent of non-English speakers over the age of 75 have poor facility in English. The absolute numbers have increased by two thirds over the last ten years to at least 100,000 people. Wilf was ignoring staff and refusing meals, and the staff were worried about his mental competence.

As I walked down the corridor to his room I called the telephone interpreter service. Wilf sat up clutching the phone to his ear and wept as we talked in his language. ’I cannot speak to anyone,’ he said, over and over. No staff member and no other resident in the nursing home spoke Wilf’s language. Wilf was perfectly competent, but starved of conversation. In a huge linguistically-diverse country like Australia the majority of interpreted consultations by doctors will always be by telephone.

Rather than being a secondary fall-back option doctors should think of telephone interpreting as their best option. Using a telephone interpreter requires some practice, good administrative processes that empower reception staff to access interpreters, and telephones with speaker facility. Once mastered, telephone interpreting helps doctors to be safer, more efficient and most importantly, to provide better service to their patients.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of Talking TIS and is reproduced with permission.  

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A journey worth doing is worth doing well

By Bev Sloan

I started my journey into a working life as a clerk for over a decade. I then developed an injury, which saw me unable to continue working and I stayed home for eight years doing nothing. I decided then if I didn’t use my brain I might as well call it quits, so I decide to study a language. Serendipitously my Mum saw a small advert in a community paper promoting a one night a week course ‘Introduction to Auslan’, and so I started a new exciting journey.

Almost immediately I fell in love with this amazing language and my hunger to know more was ravenous. There was no formal course offered at that time and if not for the enthusiasm of a few Deaf people the language probably wouldn’t have been taught in Perth. I joined every class that was offered.

After I completed all of the certificates, I still wanted to know more about Auslan and the next step up in my education was the interpreters course. However, I wasn’t ready to attempt it so I went to the Perth Deaf Club on Friday nights to observe and mix with the Deaf community. This journey into the Deaf society was one of great trepidation for me.

My fear was almost overwhelming but Auslan was like a drug and I needed more. I would go to the Deaf Club and sit in a corner on my own with a Diet Coke (these were two signs I knew so could order this drink.) After a few weeks sitting in a corner, a group of ladies took pity on me and invited me to sit with them.

The next important part of my journey commenced, getting to know the Deaf community and culture, and watching native signers conversing. I will always be grateful to those tolerant ladies who withheld laughter at my many faux pas such as ‘My couch has a vagina (diamond) pattern’, or my confusion regarding the signs ‘ask and explain’ so I ended up signing ‘I will vomit more later’.

It took me quite a while to realise that allowing a ‘hearing’ person into Deaf people’s private lives and trust them not to scam or abuse them in some way was a huge thing. I feel privileged to be seen as a friend and ally to the Deaf community as well as having the honour of providing a service for them as an interpreter and occasional transliterator. The next step in my journey was to become a qualified interpreter and to work in the Deaf community.

Fortunately I passed the Western Australia Central TAFE Diploma of Interpreting Course and went out on my journey into the unsuspecting community. I remember my first job well as a NAATI paraprofessional accredited interpreter, it was a medical appointment.

The client signed they had recently been ‘discharged’ from hospital and then finger spelled a word… and my ‘fear of finger spelling’ shutters came down. What did they say? Please repeat the word? Finally I spelled the word out loud, letter by letter and it was ‘discharged’, which was what I had already voiced to the doctor, oh cringe! Another lesson in my journey learnt, Deaf people would often sign and fingerspell the same word for emphasis.

Throughout my career as an interpreter there have been many opportunities for me to learn lessons and improve my skills. I am so very grateful to all the wonderful, and some less wonderful clients I’ve had worked with in the past 20 years. They have all taught me so much and given me opportunities to work in amazing places and bear witness to even more remarkable things. Some of the jobs I undertook were as a tandem or in a team with both hearing and Deaf interpreters. These opportunities provided more experiential steps along my journey.

Each time I’ve worked with other interpreters I learnt something new, either from them or through self- reflection. I’ve had work with, or observing some truly outstanding interpreters but I have rarely seen any who can take a concept and reform it into something so blindingly clear and comprehendible as that done by a skilled Deaf Interpreter (DI).

I almost groan with envy when observing a DI interpretation. To work with them and know that they are there for the benefit of all of us in the room is a privilege. DI’s have supported me as a colleague and they made challenging jobs immeasurably easier. I thank them for these working opportunities and I am so grateful to have worked with them during my journey.

ASLIA has provided me with an opportunity on ‘my journey’ to be of service to my community and I strongly believe it is a vital part of Interpreters’ responsibilities to contemplate about how they can support others on their journeys through our fascinating field of employment. Reciprocity is a wonderful thing! Our association has also provided extremely valuable professional development opportunities locally and at the winter schools and ASLIA National Conferences. These have made my journey all the more knowledgeable and enjoyable.

Now I’ve been working for 20 years and have been so fortunate to include the Macquarie University Graduate Diploma and NAATI professional level accreditation in my journey. I cherish those who taught me and those with whom I studied. One of many epiphanies for me was in ‘The 5 P’s’ namely preparation. The 5 P’s are sometimes quoted as ‘purpose, people, place, procedures and potential outcomes’ but I remember them as being people, place, purpose, point and perspective. I tried to use this simple but effective tool at every booking.

Sadly my journey within the Deaf and interpreting communities will be coming to an end all too soon. Unfortunately I’m losing my eyesight and I doubt there would be much call for a blind sign language interpreter! I reflect on my journey with so much pleasure and gratitude to everyone who I’ve met, socialised with, worked for or with and the many, many opportunities I was given to be useful.

I’ve enjoyed being of service to the community and I hope others will see this act of service gives back so much in return I am rich in memories, skills and appreciation. So I implore you all to embrace your individual journeys with all the enthusiasm and desire to succeed that you can muster. My journey, which I hope I’ve done well, will live with me forever.

Bev Sloan is a NAATI accredited Auslan/English interpreter. She achieved her first accreditation in 1997. This article was originally published in the ASLIA e-update and is reproduced with permission.   

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4 tips for effective marketing translations

By Nicola Thayil

Are you thinking of expanding internationally or entering a new market? One of the first things you are likely to do is to have your marketing materials translated. So how do you get your message and call to action across effectively in a different language.

1. Choose a translator specialised in marketing 

Take the time to find a translator who is experienced in marketing and who understands your business. Think about it. You wouldn’t want a financial translator translating your highly creative marketing copy, you can give them a call to translate your annual report but not your website or brochure. Translating marketing documents requires creativity, cultural competency and an ability to convey ideas whilst at the same time retaining meaning and eliciting a desired emotional response.

2. Make sure your company name and tagline are appropriate 

Your company name, slogan, logo or tagline all feature prominently on your website and marketing materials. I’m sure you’re familiar with some of the more well-known marketing translation fails such as ‘Come alive with Pepsi’ which was rendered in Chinese as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead’. Beware: a brand name or slogan doesn’t always translate well into other languages and cultures. Getting it right the first time around avoids costly corrective action and damaging your reputation.

3. Provide style guides and glossaries for your marketing materials 

Recurring words or phrases are important to your company’s identity and were originally created to make your marketing content memorable and compelling. It’s therefore important to communicate these to help your translator keep these same qualities and style for materials in another language. Your goal should be to maintain brand coherence as much as possible within any cultural limitations.

4. Educate translators about your brand 

The more informed translators are about your brand, the more accurate and effective their work will be. The translator’s role as a linguist is to take on board your brand voice and personality. They do this in order to convey these to your target audience in such a way that the message really speaks to them personally. It’s important for you to be able to present your company’s unique value to your desired target audience through culturally relevant communication.

In summary, when you are looking to translate your marketing materials for a new market, it’s important to choose a specialised translator, check the cultural relevance of your brand name and tagline, provide or develop a style guide and educate translators about your brand. Putting these recommendations in place will go a long way to ensuring that your translated marketing content retains its original compelling message and stand-out qualities.

Nicola Thayil is a professional French to English translator and conference interpreter based in Melbourne, Australia. She has been practising since 2013 after completing a Masters of Interpreting and Translation Studies at Monash University. Nicola specialises in legal, marketing and business texts, drawing on over five years' experience in marketing, as well as a background in international business. She also authors a translation blog here. This article is republished with permission. 

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