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Innovative leader in Indigenous interpreting services honoured with Order of Australia

By Frances Byers

Colleen Rosas, an Aboriginal elder, has been recognised for services to Indigenous people in the Northern Territory with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) on Australia Day, 26 January 2019.

Colleen has dedicated her life to realising the human rights of the 60,000 Australians who speak an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language as their first language.

Colleen is a descendant of the Gudjula nation.

Colleen was the founding director of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service in the Northern Territory Government.

She has chaired NAATI’s National Indigenous Languages Interpreting Advisory Committee from 2015 to 2018, was a member of the NAATI Professional Reference Group from 2014 to 2017, and is a Director for the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA). She also served on the Working Party which produced the Judicial Council on Cultural Diversity’s National Standard on Working with Interpreters in Courts and Tribunals.

 Other celebrations of her achievements include:

Colleen spoke about her reaction to the award, crediting her parents for her commitment to equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

I am very honoured and humbled to receive this award and pay tribute to my parents Gladys and Phil Brown who instilled strong values around social justice. I believe that many First Nations people still face injustices while being forced to operate in a foreign language. Only when real respect and acknowledgement is given to the original Australian languages, we will be able to navigate these systems that are now part of our world. It is not only about language, but it is about pride and empowerment.”

Aboriginal Interpreter Service

The Aboriginal Interpreter Service (AIS) was set up following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987–97), in alignment with Recommendations 99 & 100. 

In 1997, Colleen coordinated the Trial Aboriginal Interpreter Service, and in 2000 was asked to establish the Aboriginal Interpreter Service.

Since establishment, the service has provided more than 200,000 hours of interpreting assisting thousands of Aboriginal people, members of the justice system, the medical system, governments and service providers.

Colleen led innovations to the way the justice system works with interpreters and supported the vitality of Aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory. Under her leadership the Aboriginal Interpreter Service:

  • Recorded daily news bulletins for ABC radio in Yolgnu Matha, Warlpiri and Kriol,
  • Implemented the Northern Territory Law Society, the Northern Territory Supreme Court and Northern Territory Magistrates Court protocols for working with interpreters in the justice system,
  • Launched the Police Caution app, a recording into 21 Aboriginal languages of the police caution which is used daily by police to tell people of their rights when they are interviewed by police,
  • Launched the online plain English legal dictionary,
  • Developed innovative cross-cultural training approaches, including the reverse role-play “You understand, don’t you?” which was awarded Most Popular Video on IndigiTUBE for 2015,
  • Piloted the provision of Aboriginal interpreting services via telephone and audio-visual interpreting, and
  • Extended the capabilities of the interpreter service to provide voice-over recordings for audio and video campaigns to improve access to key government and private sector messaging in language.

Colleen has been a life mentor to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, giving her time and wisdom with great generosity.

Colleen has dedicated her life to realising the human rights of the 60,000 Australians who speak an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language as their first language. In my view, what Colleen has done matters, but the way she has done it matters even more. She has achieved what she has because of her formidable work ethic, her passion for justice, her wicked sense of humour and her deep kindness. I’m pleased her extraordinary service has been recognised by an Order of Australia.

Author biography 

Frances Byers is an Australian Public Servant who has worked with Colleen since 2011.

Indigenous design 

Created by Ingeous Studios, Cairns 


Published: 01/03/2019