Translating for The Voice Referendum Creating Waves

By Charles Qin

Non-English speaking populations endured hardships during Covid when translations – or the lack of them – badly impacted the well-being of many migrant groups.

Now in light of the upcoming referendum on the question of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, it is not only migrants being sidelined. Many of our remote indigenous populations – because of a lack of English language proficiency – are being excluded from the referendum. There is a chronic shortage of translators and interpreters in indigenous languages as well as other culturally and linguistic diverse (CALD) communities as highlighted in a recent 2 part ABC podcast about court interpreters

This article is going to highlight the impacts that poor translation is having on the upcoming referendum and how it may increase the likelihood of a No vote. In the second part of the article, I make some suggestions about how to work towards an inclusive and positive experience for this referendum and in other communications with CALD communities.

I will focus on my language – Chinese – and my research started when the WeChat-sphere erupted  in a storm over Chinese translation problems in materials about The Voice. I am going to quote some Chinese examples in script but explain the problems in English. These examples have come from official Chinese materials circulating about The Voice.

  1. Aboriginal people, Indigenous people or First Nations people?

    The Chinese used is “土著” (tǔzhú). Its usage can be considered derogatory in certain contexts. The derogatory aspect arises from historical and cultural connotations, as well as the way it has been used in the past to marginalise or demean indigenous communities.

    Throughout history, indigenous populations in various parts of the world have often faced discrimination, colonisation, and oppression. In many cases, their cultures, languages and ways of life have been suppressed or devalued by dominant groups. In some instances, the term “土著” has been used to imply that indigenous peoples are primitive, backward, barbaric or inferior compared to the dominant culture.

  2. Another term found online “第一民族” (dì yī mínzú) has also been used in Chinese translation and translates to “first ethnic group” or “first nation.” While this term might seem more neutral at first glance, it is still not entirely appropriate to use when referring to indigenous peoples for a few reasons:

    1 Oversimplification: The term “第一民族” suggests that there is only one indigenous or first nations group, which oversimplifies the rich diversity of indigenous cultures, languages, and histories. In reality, there are hundreds of distinct indigenous communities in Australia, each with its unique identity and traditions and in some cases language.

    2 Lack of Specificity: The Chinese term “第一民族” does not indicate the Noun number, i.e. First Nation and First Nations are the same in Chinese which means it does not identify which specific indigenous group/s it is referring to. Indigenous communities also have their own histories and struggles, and using a broad and generic term like “第一民族” erases their individuality and distinct cultural heritage.

    3 Imposing a Ranking: The term also implies a hierarchy, suggesting that one group is more important or superior to others as 第一 in Chinese means First, Number 1, leading, excellent/outstanding.

    This ranking mentality can be offensive and disrespectful to indigenous communities as it undermines their equal value and rights.

    From these translations several issues could arise:

    Some people may perceive the terms as derogatory and disrespectful, leading them to consider inclusion in the Constitution as inappropriate. As a result, they may vote No.

    Others may view the terms as an attempt to elevate indigenous people to a higher or superior position in ranking, from where they believe that indigenous people will obtain more benefits than the rest of the community and conclude that it should not be included in the Constitution. Consequently, they will likely cast their vote against it.

Commissioning CALD translations requires some forethought and planning. Paying attention to the following should ensure a smoother process with less controversy:

Cultural Sensitivity: Translating content related to Aboriginal (or other) communities requires a deep understanding of their culture, customs, and historical context. Without this sensitivity, there is a risk of misrepresenting or offending the community.

Language Diversity: Aboriginal communities in different regions have their own languages or dialects. Finding qualified translators for these specific languages can be challenging, as they may be less commonly spoken or lack written resources.

Deciding on the terms in English first before translating into other languages: there is another layer of complexity of language as government departments ought to decide what term to use in English first, and that means aboriginal languages be translated to English first, then to other community languages.

Funding and Resources: Adequate funding and resources and a good process are necessary to ensure the quality and accuracy of translations. Limited resources might lead to rushed or subpar translations.

Access to Information: In some cases, background information may not be readily available or accessible, making it challenging for translators to fully understand the context and content they are working with.

Accessibility of translated resources: brochures and leaflets are certainly important but with their limits of influence, other platforms, such as social media, radio/tv are equally if not more crucial to reach target audiences, especially where there are significant literacy problems.

Ongoing Engagement: Translation is not a one-time task; it requires ongoing engagement with Aboriginal and migrant communities to adapt to changes in language use and to ensure that translations remain relevant and accurate over time.

Translating for CALD communities

Making accurate and appropriate translations about the Voice for CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) communities is crucial for fostering inclusivity and ensuring these communities can participate fully in important discussions and decision-making processes.

If you are considering translation or marketing to CALD communities, we hope these final points assist with the process:

  1. Engage with CALD Communities: Establish a genuine and ongoing dialogue with CALD communities to understand their language needs, cultural preferences, and unique challenges. Involving community leaders, elders, and representatives in the translation process can enhance accuracy and relevance.
  2. Culturally Competent Translators and Interpreters on different platforms and events or campaigns: Hire translators who are not only proficient in the target language but also have a deep understanding of the culture and context of CALD communities. Cultural competence is vital for accurate translations that resonate with the target audience.
  3. Simplified, accurate and clear language: Use clear and straightforward language in the source English to enhance comprehension, especially when dealing with complex legal or political terms. Avoid jargon and technical language that might be difficult for community members to understand. CALD communities engage with the Australian community in English and other languages at different levels and depths.  Therefore simple and clear messaging is most important.
  4. More community workshops and events: Organise workshops, community events, and information sessions to discuss the Voice and other ethnic community issues in person and address any questions or concerns directly. For example, there are 1.5 million Chinese calling Australia home and equally there are many community organisations, representing different facets of their communities and migrants.  Events and workshops with as many organisations as possible will ensure The Voice is heard and in appropriate translations. Reaching out on platforms like WeChat is important – but more needs to be done and momentum maintained.

Professor Charles Qin Interpreting The Voice at a community event

By implementing these suggestions, Australian governments and businesses can enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of translations, foster better communication, and ensure that CALD communities are well-informed and empowered to participate in discussions related to The Voice and multicultural affairs more broadly.

At Chin, we’re always ready to  offer professional advice. Feel free to contact us for any of your multilingual translation needs. Be it a marketing campaign, interpreting engagement, or specialised multilingual material translations, we are here, ready to help.


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