Palya wiru, Farside’s Central Australian tjumul, Michael Amos.
On top of keeping Farside on track, a full time job on its own, he’s been teaching the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies how Aboriginal language court interpreting should be done…:
“I grew up with English and people speaking in secret when the missionaries were around. Most of my language is hardly spoken. I am descended from the Kokatha tribes, which covers most of South Australia.
My grandmother was from the Yankunytjatjara tribes in the APY Lands. I came to the Lands when I was 12 and it took me 10 years to learn the languages. I speak Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara. Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara were neighbouring tribes, and they lived together and married. I learnt mostly from children, old women and old men.
I didn’t become an interpreter, it just happened. I was up and down, Port Augusta and the Lands, back and forwards, doing different things – different jobs. I wanted to help people. I had the understanding and it came from the heart. People wanted help, but didn’t know how, or who to go to. They think: “I’m all on my own, nobody won’t help me.”
People needed comfort. When they saw me they’d ask me for help. There was sicknesses and sorry camps and consultation meetings. One time in Ernabella in the early 1990s Magistrate Gary Hiskey wanted meetings to do something about the petrol sniffing. It wasn’t a court issue, it was a mental health issue. He thought somebody should be doing something about the health issue, police shouldn’t be charging them.
I’ve been an interpreter for 21 years, with two organisations, ITC and Multilingual Services. I hold NAASI accreditation. Sometimes I’d work outside the agencies with other government departments. I’ve worked for Courts as a sheriff’s officer, Health, Aboriginal Legal Rights, and different community agencies. I’ve worked all over the place. I came back to Port Augusta in 2000.
ITC, the Interpreting and Translating Centre, wanted someone who spoke language. Somebody told them I’d lived up there. I was working with Adam Skuza at ITC before he started Multilingual Services. Sometimes I worked jobs for both ITC and Multilingual Services. Basically it was always on a casual basis, and only 2-day workshops when all the interpreters from different language groups came together and talked about what we could do and couldn’t do in a court case, more or less education you know.
People would see me going around and I thought it would be a good idea to have interpreters using the languages they spoke in their areas. When I was in Ceduna, I set up some people as interpreters speaking their language on the Far West Coast. Adam Skuza and I did numerous two-day workshops in Ceduna. Some of them are still doing interpreting. Patricia Gunta is one of them. She works with ITC.
I work with Adam and Multilingual Services. I interpret for people with lawyers, magistrates, judges. Sometimes I interpret for psychiatrists and for bail enquiry reports about background issues.
How do I interpret? It’s the spirit within us; it’s the spirit within us that makes us who we are. It’s like a painting, you look at it, but you see what is beyond that, the meaning. You wouldn’t paint something on a piece of paper, on a board, that didn’t mean something, and it’s the same. There’s the full thing of it, then as you look the story come out of the centre. It’s like the picture in middle. I put it in terms that other people can understand.
I keep it plain so that I can interpret the meaning, so that it is in their language and they understand. I am getting the information right and putting it in the way that the person has said it, so it is appropriate in a cultural way. It might be the same word but with different angles, same sort of language, in a different context, with some of wording almost the same, but I say it in a way more comfortable for the person.
I am listening to and being there for the persons, talking in a way they are comfortable with. They need to know I’m someone who speaks their language and they are comfortable with. I comfort them and take them through it. I try to avoid spots where I’m stepping on hot coals, and not invading their sensitive areas.
Old people taught me to see things their way and take me down that road. It’s respect, not money; it involves a range of different things. Things the interpreter plays between. It’s basically an education that’s passed on through culture. There are some areas you can go and some you can’t – they teach you that, educate you, don’t go down that road. There’s a big road, a little road, don’t go down the big road, there’s a lot of people there.
I’d rather sit on the fence with the old women and the old men. When you’re thinking about something, there’s always a place you can go, with open arms out. People won’t do anything without support from the old people first.
Outside the courtroom, it’s about getting information, who the person is, what language they speak, what the police are saying. If you’re interpreting for police, it’s the same as dealing with a witness, or a defendant, it’s getting the story right. It could be anything, what she suffered, injuries. It could be sleepless nights, doctor’s reports.
Then there is explaining the process of it, not only that, feedback from what prosecution are saying, how to go about negotiating, another thing is communication with community, community ties, whether can stay in community or got to move on, programmes they have to do, court proceedings, interpret in way they understand everything that’s been said, with nothing left out.
It’s education, basically, this is what is going to happen. The information comes from the court, the lawyers, the prosecutors. They look at it in the legal way, I look at it from the cultural way, and explain it so that it makes better sense to the people I am interpreting for.
Whenever I walk into the courthouse, there are always people talking about things so that everybody can hear, and everybody looks at sheets on the walls that say what everyone is going for, cause lists. It should be just what they need to know, their names, not what the police say they’ve done. Sometimes there are things they haven’t done.
Lawyers shouldn’t talk about things people have told them in waiting rooms and things like that. It should all stay in a closed room, not everybody in there, looking, it’s shame. Sometimes I take the lawyer into another room and I tell them that too. Police shouldn’t be doing that too. It makes it hard for the interpreter.
The lives of people we see at court in the Lands are ruled by sugar, high blood pressure, chronic heart conditions. I am trained in senior first aid. I don’t want to have to use it. Sometimes when courts are sitting people don’t take their medication or food or fluids and they can have a heart attack or sugar attack. They are things that are really life threatening.
There are a lot of mental health issues, especially from the petrol sniffing. They need to tell the truth because if you don’t it can make you very sick inside. Lands people sometimes just forget but they don’t tell lies unless they are afraid, and afterwards it makes them sick. I have to help them find a place where they know they are in an area where they are in a healing process. I ask them what to say so you can be safe and heal in the mind, body and spirit. I ask them what your spirit and your body is telling you.
If you had an ear-bashing, you could run to grandparents. Grandparents were a comfort area, time out and all sorts, and a safe place to feel remorse, companionship, love. I am in more or less a grandparent relationship to them, an elderly person who has been growing them up, in a sense that the knowledge and wisdom plays a significant part with it. If the person is lost, and he puts his spirit back, he can see what he couldn’t see, what he was doing. He’s back together again, internally mended.
I tell them I can help you to a point but you have to help yourself so you feel better, not keeping everything bottled up because you haven’t said it, so get rid of it off your chest, on to someone else’s, let your voice be heard. If your body and spirit is not good it will take a toll on your body and your mind and your thinking.
I tell them I need their trust. What’s back beyond will open up if you’ve got your trust. There are things they can’t talk about and don’t want to, or it’s to do with their pride and things like that. They test you, won’t say what happened, take you on wild goose chase, come back to the same place. They see if you are there to help them in any situation before they open up. They are worried, scared, need a shoulder.
They are in a really alien environment. All the eyes are looking at them. They want to talk to a person who knows about them, their area and family ties and watched them growing up. They don’t know what information to put forward. They don’t understand the pros and cons of choices about which way to go or what to do.
You try to give the person time to think about it and decide. I say to the lawyer “He doesn’t want to talk about it and he’s not prepared to.” I just tell them, “You can tell me when you’re ready.” By body language you know when he is ready to say if it is something he can say. Sometimes just out of the blue they come out with it, you know.
Sometimes they don’t understand why they are charged. “How come, I’m the person who didn’t do stuff, but the person who did got hurt, and now you take it their way.” They don’t understand the process or the wording. Sometimes they are afraid, some just want something to happen because they are sick of sitting waiting. If they just agree to get it out of road, when it does happen, their jaw drops to the floor. I explain what will happen and what they want to do from there.
I ask what started from, what happened between, and where it ended up. It can be little things. What started with a squashed billy can turn into lots of people fighting with nulla-nullas, wooden clubs, and everything, just like with any people anywhere else. It might be only his milk being pinched but he might have bought it with the last of his money.
Some try to set fires. I tell them I’m not going to be drawn into it, that I’m there to get their voice across, not shut out. Some think I’m a lawyer. I explain I’m not; I’m there to pass a message, so other people understand their point of view.
There is some other stuff they don’t want to be open about with good reasons. There are things they can’t talk about. There are some areas where I’d say to the lawyer “It wouldn’t be appropriate for him to say anything about that.”
I let them know when I know that they are sick. Sometimes I see it, sometimes it’s someone I’ve known a long time and I know his background. It might be a psychological issue. I know from their background and seeing them grow up in their environment. I know what they are going to do. I can predict their reactions from watching their body language and reactions.
With some of them, with some things, I try and comfort, I ask for permission to tell their story – I ask “Do you feel comfortable.” The spotlight is on them. There are all those eyes, looking at only one direction. Their spirit shakes.
Sometimes they educate you in a sense so that you can understand and interpret. They’ll try to tell you the same story again in a different way in their language. They say “Listen, if you can’t understand, then I’ll tell you another way, so you can understand”. They don’t like being asked the same things again, like in cross examination. “Didn’t I answer the question before, it’s the same question, and the same story, I thought I talked about that story before, but now it’s coming back again.” That’s why they don’t tell the story the same way in cross examination.
Body language is part of the telling. Sometimes I have to help them remember. They’ve forgotten, too busy, too many mobiles dinging, faxes. Sometimes they don’t understand what everyone is asking, sometimes they simply don’t follow.
Sometimes it is fear. Fear has never lifted, fear of so many other things in their mind, body, and spirit. They couldn’t resurface it, they were too afraid. Fear impacts on their ability to communicate, sometimes they can understand but are too frightened to be able to speak. They have sleepless nights, you know, walking around at night. They don’t know where to go and who to talk to, or they don’t want to talk. I tell them your voice will be heard.
Sometimes they can’t remember because they were intoxicated or too wasted by some other substances. There’s a lot of brain damage, petrol, alcohol, especially when there is brain damage already. They might say they are rehabilitated, but their spirit, mind and body, it’s not.
Sometimes it might be when there’s been a car crash and they’ve been injured. Things they carry for life because they can still physically feel the pain. It rewinds, they feel again the pain they went through. They try to forget because they don’t blot out the feeling of pain. They say “My turn, you gave me, so I give you the same pain.” “My head no good” is pain getting in through the block. They don’t like pain, it hurts.
I talk politely to them, show that I understand them, put myself on the same path as they are going. Sometimes I ask them “Have you left anything out, are there some things you want to put in there that you haven’t said?” I won’t go on with anyone with the lawyer when they’re not in a good state of mind or they’re hungry because they haven’t eaten or they haven’t taken their medicatio. I talk to them with polite words, ask them politely, things like have you had breakfast, how are you feeling today.
Most police statements are taken without interpreters. Sometimes they can’t recall what was said without one. Sometimes they have like a flashback when there is an interpreter. Victims are terrified. They remember the pain. Sometimes they think they will keep him away for a little while with a restraining order but they still want him back even though they are still scared. They think about his family, their family, things like that. Without an interpreter they are left trying to guess the rest of question left unspoken, like if they had been drinking, when they had been drinking, if it wasn’t in the same place as they are being asked about.
Judges and magistrates make it hard when they don’t understand cultural issues. They look at pieces of paper, not face to face, talking about issues. If people want to come and have their say, let them. If they come a long way to put their thoughts into court, listen to them.
I tell them I’m here to interpret for you. I tell the judge or magistrate there’s something they want to say. I talk to the lawyers the prosecutors, see if there is a way for them to talk with the magistrate or judge so the magistrate or judge hears things out. I look for the way of doing it in each case. It might be a good idea to hear from the elders in the community about cultural stuff, the effect on the community, the long term issues. It could be petrol sniffing it could be mental health.
Family plays a big role. In some situations I talk to both families. Sometimes they don’t want to talk about it; sometimes it’s better not to talk to them.
Sometimes I don’t talk to families because they are not in the state of mind or they haven’t had their medication, or they have no food. Sometimes I don’t want to be involved in what both sides are feeling. It’s like mourning. When they are in that state of mind, it’s too hard to explain, too dangerous, too hurtful. Delicate areas are more of a problem when it’s rape, murder, things where there might be people hurting. It puts the interpreter right in there with it.
Judges and magistrates make it hard when they don’t understand cultural issues. They look at pieces of paper, not face to face, talking about issues.
It comes back to the situation of where the family is, what are the family feeling, if they have lost someone really dear, or on other occasions someone can feel the same hurt and pain as much as the person who was the victim or the deceased. It carries a lot of worries, and people might not have any sickness but worry takes a toll when the person is not within the family any more.
Sometimes family looks, what are you interpreting for him for. I say I’m not taking sides. I stay neutral. There is no support for the interpreter by people outside when the family groups get upset because they don’t get justice and they blame the interpreter.
Sometimes you feel like you want no part of interpreting anymore, because of what happened. There’s no counselling. The interpreters need reassurance they are in safe hands.
Organisations need to look after their interpreters if they want them to interpret. They need to reassure. If he does a murder trial, or something involving a child, sometimes there is an effect on the interpreter, there needs to be some way of coming through that. Sometimes it gives you sleepless nights, and it just doesn’t go away. I tell family, I had a bad one at court, but its confidential, I can’t go beyond that, it’s boxed in. I meditate, sometimes that does good. I try to clean my mind so it doesn’t resurface.
Sometimes it does all fall out. I try to work it off, do very hard labour, meditating at the same time to release it. It is suffering that sets it off. Old people will look at you say what’s the matter, is something wrong, sit you down, say you worry too much. Old people correct me in the right direction. When there are no old people, I’ll try to do what they told me, taking each thing step by step. The young generation who don’t listen don’t know what they’re missing out on with the old people. That’s where all our knowledge and our culture comes from.
I can’t interpret for both the victim and the defendant in the same court case and the same room. It’s about privacy and confidentiality. The first thing the defendants and the victims do when they walk in it is to look around, “who’s there in that room?” Sometimes there are things they aren’t allowed to say for cultural reasons, and people they can’t share the room with.
Sometimes things resurfacing from statements traumatise the victim. You can hear the voice changes. It isn’t appropriate to be there for the person who caused that pain at the same time as I am taking a person through that pain again. Some don’t like to go in with jury looking, all those eyes on you. There’s a lot of people there.
Sometimes they are living in the present, it happened a long time ago and tomorrow is a waste of time to think about. “Everything blown over, me and her right now.” The women might think everything is palypa, that is OK now, but in the long run it isn’t, the fear is still there.
I interpret for the person. They’re lost and their spirit lifts from their body and when the spirit isn’t in the body there’s nothing at all. It loses its thinking, especially with food, or fear, like the other person is feeling.
I tell him that the only person to look at is the interpreter and I provide comfort until the court is over. When court is over I tell them worry about something else, worry about court another day. It gives them time to think – like in trials and that. They don’t understand the length or the process until they finish it. They say “Is that it? Can I go now?” when someone leaves the room.
It’s left to the interpreter to explain the process, that the magistrate will say something, the prosecution, the lawyers. It’s hard when there are too many people talking. For them, it’s coming at them from everywhere. They give me a push, to say “You know me,” sometimes they’re pushing so hard I’m nearly falling off the chair. Sometimes they don’t want to know what you are telling them and it can be very tense.
I talk softly so they can feel my heart beat. They can feel everything you are feeling, your vibes are hitting them, they can feel it. I need to be face to face. With video, I can’t hear those voice’s changes, I can’t be close enough to know what the person is feeling. The pores sometimes open and they sweat a lot. I can smell when there is a sense of fear, it could be people sitting in a court and all these eyes look at him. He gets frightened, he gets confused, he puts his head down, he sweats.
Same with the kungkas, women, same situation. They’re not going to speak when there is a courtroom full of people looking at them. It’s better if a kungka who has been hurt isn’t in the same room, there’s only her and an interpreter with her, like by video.
Sometimes it is hard for men to interpret for women and women for men, for cultural reasons, it’s intrusive and invading. I don’t interpret for women if there are details I don’t go into. I interpret if they need my help, if there is no one else to help and they ask, but I won’t go into details on anything sensitive. If I’m interpreting for women I don’t try to help the victim. She’s comfortable with me putting the message so he’s aware without pointing the finger.
It’s better to bring in a kungka interpreter, especially when there is eye contact, even in a closed room. I wouldn’t want to talk for a kungka who’d been raped, it wouldn’t be right. That needs a kungka interpreter, who understands what she is feeling. I refuse to interpret in that situation. If a man was raped I would.
Everything should stay confidential. Sometimes people don’t want everybody to hear their private business. I can try to explain what’s being said to them in a way that is safe, so as not to hurt. I don’t want them intimidated more than what they are. I tell them I don’t want to say what’s wrong for you. They might be sick. They don’t want to say in the courtroom what their symptoms are, or have it dispersed for everyone to hear. There should be somewhere so they can go in without those eyes looking at them.
Sometimes a closed room is needed, not open to everyone, especially things like rape, murder. Things resurface, loss and grief, and the burdens they carry with them, over long, long periods. Fathers inherit them from their fathers. They feel what they feel and picture what they are saying and feel what they are saying. “I could feel that.” What they are seeing and feeling is more or less what a painter is seeing and feeling as he paints his picture.
People don’t like talking about the deceased. Naming the dead puts them through their own mini-death too. Their spirit leaves their body and goes to where the dead person is resting. It wouldn’t be appropriate to make that resurface so I don’t say the name.
Sometimes they don’t like to remember because of flashbacks and never getting over it. Things I saw with my family when I was a child resurface only now, in 2010, and 2011. Most of that stuff stays with them until the day they leave this world. Each time they hear the name it resurfaces. Some people turn to drinking and taking drugs. On other occasions they suicide.
What they feel makes them restless, sleepless, frail, hunger, all sorts- sometimes a lot of anger comes into it. It’s a thing within themselves – getting wild with themselves, not anyone else. They take in a lot of blame – why me – and a lot of people have a lot of flashbacks.
Sometimes it’s not good to remind them. It takes them back to the place where it happened, they relive it, and they don’t want to go back there and remember those things. It takes a toll of them when I remind them.
When there are questions, if I use “I“ in language, the person will say “Why is it always me, I? I…this, I…that? What about them and them and them?” They get angry and frustrated and they don’t answer any more. Nununar is “we,” all of us. Sometimes “we” is like a lot of us; sometimes “we” is a few of us. “I” is hardly ever used. It’s always “we” because people never do anything by themselves. “I” might be cooking a kangaroo but someone is always helping, gathering firewood.
“I” isn’t used much. It is cultural and in the background. “I” is used for things like digging the hole, burning the hair off the kangaroo, preparing. Only one person cooks the kangaroo. It’s the same with giving out the meat; only one person does the dividing into sections to give to family members, like mother in law, and so on. Until all of the meat is distributed out, in the way so that everybody gets a piece.
Sometimes when they sentence people, judges and magistrates say “you, you, you” at all time. I take the “you, you, you” out and make it “all of us,” so that it is not blaming, not finger pointing. If I used “you, you, you” it would change the way they are thinking.
I take the blame out, not putting the person down, to keep them listening, otherwise it would go to “Why are you picking on me?” Communication stops automatically. They will look and say “Eh what – how come it’s always me, me, me? What about other people, lots of people do this,” and then their finger starts pointing. When they think their story is being ignored, self-pity comes into it. They get fed up, feel hurt, sorrow, unwanted – “I’m useless.”
Victim impact statements stir up more harm, not help, on both sides. They think of things people would rather not think about. When they think about it, their heart and spirit drops – there’s sorrow – grief – anger – all sorts. It’s bringing something up they already forgot about. When the spirit goes there is only a body. It’s the same with cultural stuff. Everything takes a toll.
With finger pointing, they stop listening, and then I can’t interpret. There is nothing to interpret. Especially when it’s imprisonment, it takes a toll on body and mind. They worry, don’t eat, they might suicide. Grief and loss kick in. Some occasions, there are other reasons, like people miss funerals, things like that. They start thinking in Greenbush, Port Augusta prison, about things in the past, how they’ve lost family. Things they were never taught, where they’ve behaved like copycat, with things they saw every day.
With meetings people sit in a way that lets me talk to different ones when I’m interpreting. The older men sit behind the older women, the wife sits in front of her mother-in-law, and so on. It makes it easier to interpret for a lot of people, for their voices to be heard.
Working for an organisation there needs to be support from the organisation, a counsellor-companion who interprets for the interpreter. The interpreter needs support from within the organisation or he cannot interpret. I work with Adam and Multilingual Services. Adam gives me the support I need to interpret.
Sometimes I’m interpreting with signs. When I am concentrating very hard my eyes are closed. I use my hands when I say “Leave it.” One hand in a fist means “Wait, I’ll talk to him.” When they lie, they roll their hand. One hand up, as if balancing something on the palm, is saying “tji-tji,” child. When I turn side on, it means someone said the wrong thing to someone else.
We learn from our mistakes. It’s like stepping stones, one thing at a time, if it doesn’t work, try another way. When you’re thinking about something, there’s always a place you can go, with arms out open for you.
People won’t do anything without support from the old people first. I’d like to thank the old people, the pumpas, the tjilpis, the tjitji, the children, tjuta everybody, all the people I’ve laughed with and yarned with in all the communities, and all the family ties, for the wonderful gifts of knowledge, wisdom, companionship and courage they have given me. It’s been a privilege to be an interpreter for all people who spoke in languages.”