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Being a rare language interpreter and translator

By Jean Burke

I have been a Swahili interpreter and translator for over a decade. In Australia, Swahili (or Kiswahili) is considered a ‘rare language’ as few people speak it and there is not enough interpreting work to sustain full-time employment.

I feel amused about Swahili being categorised as a rare language because it is spoken by about 80 million people globally and is the second most widely spoken language in Africa after Arabic. Swahili is an official language in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda but is also spoken in neighbouring countries.

I am an Anglo-Australian who learnt Swahili as an adult when I lived in the United Republic of Tanzania for twelve years and worked with the Anglican Church of Tanzania. After four months of language school, we lived in villages and later the capital, which were wonderful environments for language learning.

When I returned to Australia, a community worker suggested I consider responding to the need for interpreters. I leapt at the chance of flexible employment which could help me keep my second language, and might also guide me in finding my place in Australian society again.

Swahili-speakers have arrived in Australia due to migration, fleeing wars in Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo and as returning expatriates (like myself). In the 2011 census, there were 6,885 Australian residents who reported speaking Swahili as their main language at home. This makes it one of the fastest growing languages in Australia, increasing more than 100% from 3,051 Swahili-speakers in 2006.

This means Swahili is also an ‘emerging language’, with an increasing demand for language services and without a corresponding increase in the supply of suitable interpreters and translators. In my experience, many interpreters are newly settled refugees with good English, who then move onto other full-time work as soon as they can.

The first interpreting agency I worked with in 2004 took me on although I had no training or recognition: I was their only Swahili interpreter for some time. At an initial job, I discovered a teenager had missed about 16 days of his TAFE lessons due to interpreting for his family.

As I gained confidence and skills, I entered contracts with other agencies. Sometimes I was in a catch-22 dilemma with agencies requiring I have recognition status, which I couldn’t get until I had referral letters from two agencies vouching for my work experience with them.

In 2009, I undertook training through NAATI’s New Interpreters Project (NIP) and was encouraged to sit the newly available Swahili paraprofessional interpreter exam. The NIP was a project that aimed to increase the number of interpreters in specific language groups by covering the cost of obtaining NAATI accreditation or recognition. NAATI shows foresight in running such projects, since interpreters of rare languages only receive income from casual appointments.

Being a rare interpreter and translator brings some unique challenges and benefits. If I cannot accept a job on a particular day or time, a person might go without an interpreter, with consequences like having to come back to court again, or being held in police custody longer, or getting less than ideal service.

This means that I may be asked to nominate alternative days and times that I am available. Occasionally, even if I am not logged in for telephone interpreting, I may be contacted outside the system to check on my availability.

Another particular challenge I deal with is that I defy the usual expectations about African interpreters. I speak English with an Australian accent, since it is my mother tongue. My Scottish and Irish names match my appearance - white skin and freckled with red hair.

For some Swahili-speakers my appearance as a ‘mzungu’ (white European) is extra reassurance that I will maintain confidentiality - they know that I am not moving in their close-knit community. On the other hand, some of the professionals I meet are taken aback by my appearance and have to readjust their expectations and control (or not) their curiosity.

Most of the time, I very much enjoy being asked “where did you learn this rare language?”

Jean Burke is a senior social work lecturer at Australian Catholic University, and a Swahili paraprofessional translator and interpreter. She learnt Swahili as her second language when she and her family lived in the United Republic of Tanzania from 1992-2003. Jean primarily worked with an AIDS project within the Anglican Church of Tanzania, doing community HIV education and supporting a self-help group of people with HIV. On returning to Australia she has interpreted for many Congolese and Burundian refugees and others from East and Central Africa.