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Open Letter About Office Of Ethnic Communities’ Proposed Multilingual Information Network

In early July, the Office of Ethnic Communities (OEC) posted to its website and social media channels details about a new initiative called the Multilingual Information Network. The notice asked for “community volunteers” to complete a range of tasks, including translating “important government information” into their primary language/s, setting up a process to test their translations for accuracy, distributing this information to their communities, and gathering feedback from their communities to deliver to OEC.

This notice has since been removed. We believe OEC is currently rethinking the initiative in response to pushback against it from individuals and organisations from a wide range of language communities and areas of expertise, many of whom have signed this Open Letter.

While we wait for details of the revised iteration of the Multilingual Information Network, we here outline our thoughts about the proposed initiative.

We support OEC’s efforts to ensure diverse communities have access to government messages in their own languages. We also endorse its approach of working closely with these communities to disseminate information in the ways that they connect and communicate. We do, however, have concerns about the initiative. We feel it is important to raise these concerns publicly in order to hold our government agencies to account and push them to model best practice, and explain these concerns to the New Zealand public.

We believe OEC’s call for community volunteers contravened best practice in two primary regards:

  1. Translation is a highly specialised and complex skill for which a person should be trained and remunerated. The same situation applies to interpreting (oral translation).
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Translation and interpreting work should not be done by untrained people. Even people with excellent language proficiency in both English and their primary language/s are not necessarily competent translators or interpreters; getting a message across in another language is not only a matter of using the correct words but also accurately conveying meaning and nuance (just imagine trying to translate legal or medical terminology, or slang or humour). Accurate, trusted translation is especially important for government messages, which are often high-stakes.

The circulation of erroneous translations can have serious implications. Failing to provide language communities with accurate information marginalises them further from the mainstream, and brings unnecessary distress and risk to groups which are already vulnerable by virtue of their limited English proficiency. There are further implications of erroneous translation, including reputational risk to the organisation circulating the information.

The government has systems in place for the provision of information to linguistic minorities. The Department of Internal Affairs (the government department under which OEC sits, which makes its call for community volunteers particularly incongruous) has an in-house translation team. There is also a cross-government Language Assistance Services Programme which aims to set common standards for interpreting and translating for government in New Zealand, and improve access to information and services for people with limited English. Government agencies can turn to these institutions for advice and assistance in terms of delivering translation and interpreting. Businesses and community groups looking to engage translators and/or interpreters can search online for professional companies.

We are pleased that OEC is now talking to the interpreting and translation experts in DIA, and hope that this will lead to a strengthening of the proposed initiative.

Reaching, engaging with and including linguistic minorities in New Zealand is hugely important, enriching and mutually beneficial, and will become increasingly more so as our society continues to diversify. Successful cross-cultural interactions require effective communication - often provided through translation and/or interpreting - and as such, these services should not be a ‘nice to have’ or an ‘afterthought’. Rather, organisations should look to do justice to and value this work by engaging professionals, and by proactively incorporating funding for it into their annual budgets.

  1. Volunteers are not simply a source of free labour.

There are parameters in place in New Zealand to prevent the exploitation of volunteers, including the number of hours volunteers can work (anything more than 15 hours per week would raise questions), the type of work they can provide (volunteer roles should not replace paid roles), and the type of agency they work for (volunteers are usually recruited into not-for-profit or non-governmental organisations, and only rarely into government agencies). OEC’s proposed recruitment of “community volunteers” seemed to contravene some of these parameters.

Our concerns around exploitation and vulnerability were exacerbated by the specific nature of the work expected of Multilingual Information Network volunteers. Carrying out translation work and interacting with language communities can only be done by people who are bi- or multilingual. Many people with these skills are migrants, and this kind of role is especially likely to appeal to new migrants looking for ‘a foot in the door’ in a New Zealand workplace in the hope of securing future employment. This eagerness to work makes them open to potential exploitation.

Given that the Multilingual Information Network role would likely appeal to recent migrants, one further consideration is visa type and status. We understand that volunteering for roles which should be paid (which include translation) could compromise visa conditions.

There is also some inherent risk in engaging volunteers from a particular community to liaise with that community on behalf of government. Asking volunteers to feed information between their communities and government puts the weight of responsibility for the content and accuracy of this exchange on the volunteer and exposes them to possible negative backlash (for example, if the community feels its message was not heard). Conversely, paid staff - even if they are from that language community - have the ‘protection’ of professional boundaries and support. Government should not put volunteers under this kind of pressure.

The issue of volunteer exploitation is especially pertinent as we enter a period of economic uncertainty and hardship post-COVID, when exploitation of volunteers becomes ever more likely. Migrant workers who have been made redundant are particularly vulnerable and desperate - they are not eligible for New Zealand Job Seeker benefits but they usually want to remain in New Zealand. In light of this situation, OEC should be especially mindful of not exploiting people or over-promising.

The Multilingual Information Network could be a valuable employment pathway for migrants - especially recent migrants who often struggle to find work - but only if participants receive training to become professionally accredited translators and appropriate payment for the work. Remuneration would recognise that both translation and facilitation are skilled tasks that deserve to be valued.

It is our belief that OEC’s original appeal for Multilingual Information Network volunteers undermined best practice in regards to both our primary concerns. As OEC deliberates amendments to its Multilingual Information Network, we reiterate that government should model communication best practice through the engagement and remuneration of professional translators and interpreters. It is similarly imperative that the government model best practice in the recruitment of volunteers and not use them to avoid paying for services.

We appreciate the intent of OEC’s initiative and endorse the aim of finding innovative solutions to enable a faster turnout of communication in multiple languages and to empower Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities to contribute to civic life. We encourage government agencies to provide opportunities for members of these communities to put to use or strengthen their skills and support them to overcome barriers to meaningful employment.

We encourage all government agencies to continue working towards employing diverse workforces and valuing cultural and linguistic skills as important assets worth investing in.

We recommend the Office of Ethnic Communities and other government agencies continue the conversation with all of our communities, their leaders, organisations, interpreting and translation service providers and academics about improving the communication of public messages in multiple languages. We are only recently out of COVID-19 lockdown, when government needed to disseminate information about the pandemic to various language communities quickly and effectively. It thus seems an especially opportune time to advocate for deeper consideration of the roles and responsibilities that government bears towards the communities it serves, and for government to commit to conducting best practice in all areas.

We want to see positive ideas put into practice in a way that ensures quality and protects the communities they aim to serve, and we are keen to work with OEC to support this model.

Signatories to this letter:

CLING (Community Languages Information Network Group)

ALSWG (Auckland Languages Strategy Working Group)

Christchurch Resettlement Services

COMET Auckland

Community Access Media Alliance (CAMA)

Interpreting New Zealand

Daryl Streat, President, TESOLANZ (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Aotearoa New Zealand)

Tayo Agunlejika, Ethnic Community Member

Joris de Bres, Race Relations Commissioner 2002-2013

Dr Julia de Bres, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, Massey University

Dr Lesley Campbell, Lebern and Associates

Dr Shelley Dawson, Research and Teaching Fellow, School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Anthony Fisher, Lecturer in Linguistics, Massey University

Dr Akevai Nicholas, Lecturer in Linguistics, Massey University

Dr Corinne A. Seals, Senior Lecturer of Applied Linguistics, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Bernadette Vine, Senior Researcher, Language in the Workplace Project, Victoria University of Wellington

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