Indigenous language interpreter services: Operational guidance for grant applicants and service providers

Indigenous AffairsIndigenous Advancement Strategy
Tuesday, 04 October 2016
Publication author(s):
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Publication abstract:

This Operational Guidance has been developed to provide the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet funded service providers with guiding principles for:

  • expectations under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) for using Indigenous language interpreters;
  • assessing the need for Indigenous language interpreter services; and
  • engaging and working with interpreters
Policy Overview

Scope and Purpose of Guidance

The use of Indigenous language interpreters is referenced in the IAS Grant Guidelines as follows:

In developing their proposal, applicants should take into account cultural and linguistic needs of Indigenous Australians and others whose first language is not English, and be mindful of the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Best Practice Principles for interpreting.

In line with the IAS and other funding guidelines, the purpose of this document is to promote the use of Indigenous language interpreter services during the grant application process and delivery of services, in order to facilitate equitable access to services and meaningful engagement with Indigenous communities.

The document outlines a simple framework for:

  • identifying scenarios when an Indigenous interpreter might be beneficial;
  • assessing need; and
  • accessing appropriate Indigenous interpreter services.

This guidance aims to be consistent with the Ombudsman’s Best Practice Principles - Use of Interpreters. It should be used for initial guidance, directing organisations and communities to additional resources and information. It also aligns with Australian Government Access and Equity Provisions.

Applicability and Target Groups

It is expected this guidance will be provided by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet staff to organisations to inform a strong application for grant funding, for example through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, Community Led Grants process or in the ongoing delivery of services. The guidance may also be provided to service providers delivering other Commonwealth funded programmes to Indigenous Australians. This document is intended to be read in conjunction with other relevant guidelines, funding agreements and grant/programme specific documents.

Interpreting services should be considered at all stages of the application process, including:

  • throughout initial engagement and consultation with community around need and priorities;
  • to inform the development of strong grant funding applications, including the initial proposal
  • as part of conversations around the design of a programme or activity and how it might be delivered;
  • during the implementation/delivery phase; and
  • for ongoing monitoring and evaluation purposes.

Why consider using an interpreter?

Australia’s Indigenous population is nearing 700,000, or three per cent of the total population. The 2011 ABS Census found 60,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speak Indigenous languages at home, with a wide variety of Indigenous languages, dialects and kriols spoken. Most languages speakers reside in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Far North Queensland.

Even if people can hold simple conversations in English, they may not have sufficient English proficiency to understand complex words and concepts such as those used in the courts, hospitals, income management, land negotiations, contracts or tenancy agreements.

Failure to communicate effectively and achieve common understanding with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people undermines the ability of service providers and governments (including through the justice and health systems) to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and thereby improve outcomes. Failure to use an interpreter can have negative impacts on the success of a programme or service, and in worst case situations it can have serious, even life threatening, consequences.

What is an interpreter?

An interpreter is a qualified professional who enables communication between people who speak different languages. Interpreters convert messages accurately and objectively from one language into another, and can help facilitate communication during meetings, training sessions, interviews, or other more serious situations such as a court proceeding or a medical appointment.

The use of a person’s family, friends or children as interpreters should be avoided, as they may not have the required English competency, training or interpreting skills required to interpret accurately. In addition, using friends or family may affect a person’s willingness to participate in a discussion, express an opinion or disclose information. It may also affect the impartiality and accuracy of the interpretation and have a negative impact on family relationships.

Translation is a separate specialty to interpreting, with a distinct set of implementation challenges. The majority of Indigenous languages are oral, rather than written, and many languages do not have a standard written form. In addition, literacy is low in some Indigenous communities. When there is a need for written information to be provided, resources such as talking posters should be considered. (Refer ‘Further Information, Additional Resources and Associated Documents’.)

Arranging an Interpreter

Assessing need

While the need for an interpreter can be obvious, it isn’t always a straightforward decision, and can require a judgement-based assessment.

The table at Attachment A is one tool that might help assess need. This is extracted from the Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreting Service website. Other organisations provide their own advice and tools for assessing need. It is recommended you contact the service relevant to the region for further information. If no service can be identified for a specific region, the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) or the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Indigenous Affairs Group should be contacted for advice.

Links to NAATI and Indigenous interpreter services can be found under ‘Further Information, Additional Resources and Associated Documents’.


If Indigenous language interpreters are required, associated costs and implications for delivery of a service need to be considered and identified when proposing a budget in support of an application or for the ongoing delivery of a programme. The Multicultural Language Services Guidelines contains useful tools for undertaking cost assessments; refer ‘Further Information, Additional Resources and Associated Documents’.

PMC staff can provide service providers with information about working with Indigenous language providers.

If interpreting is refused

If, after assessment, it is decided Indigenous language interpreters are needed to communicate effectively with a person or group, but the service is refused, it is important to try to clarify and address the reasons for refusal. For example, it may be necessary to explain that interpreters are bound by the duty of confidentiality or that the individual does not have to pay for the interpreter’s services. If there is potential for embarrassment around needing an interpreter a useful strategy is to explain to the individual that the need is not for them, but for the person conducting the conversation.

It might be useful to talk to family members or friends present to determine the reason why a person is refusing an interpreter.

Arranging an interpreter

Before arranging an interpreter the type of job required should be determined, as this will help with appropriate preparation and planning. It is also important to provide as much information as possible on the group or person requiring interpreting.

A briefing session with the interpreter should be organised prior to the event at which their services are required. The briefing session allows the interpreter an opportunity to ask questions about the subject matter of the session. Many English terms and concepts do not have an Indigenous language equivalent, and the interpreter may need time to work out what the terms mean, especially technical terms and jargon, and how to interpret them. Any concerns or issues the interpreter has with the assignment can be discussed and worked through at this briefing.

This document provides links to the websites for the key providers for Indigenous language interpreting services, including the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters, the Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service, and the Kimberley Interpreting Service (under ‘Further Information, Additional Resources and Associated Documents’.)

What to do if no interpreter is available

The number of accredited interpreters for Indigenous languages is not large, and can be further reduced by the need to avoid conflicts of interest and take into account issues around kinship and extended family relations that might make an interpreter unsuitable.

If an Indigenous language interpreter is required but a suitable interpreter is not available:

  • try to postpone the event that requires an interpreter until one is available; and/or
  • provide feedback to the Department (via a funding agreement contact), explaining that a need was recognised but despite best efforts interpreting services were not able to be secured.
Additional Information

If more than one language is spoken in a community it is recommended the community be consulted to provide advice on the preferred language for interpreting services. Advice should be sought for each event at which an interpreter is required, as the preferred language might change depending on the make-up of the group.

The use of an individual  who has not received formal interpreting training and accreditation doesn’t align with the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Best Practice Principles - Use of Interpreters (see ‘Further Information, Additional Resources and Associated Documents’).

Without formal training/accreditation they may not have the required English language competence and interpreting skills required to interpret accurately. Additionally, a local person might have a relationship with the individual or group requiring the interpreting service. This may affect a person’s willingness to participate in a discussion, express an opinion or disclose information. It may also affect the impartiality and accuracy of the interpretation and have a negative impact on family relationships.

Service providers should consider these issues and in a situation where an interpreter is needed, a professionally accredited interpreter should be sought in the first instance.

The Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service offers free Communicating Across Languages training in the Northern Territory, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands and Ngaanyatjarra Lands. Both general and legal specific training is offered, with these courses alternating weekly. Training sessions at your organisation can be tailored to address the specific needs or challenges of your organisation or profession, however fees apply in this instance.

The Kimberley Interpreting Service also offers Cross Cultural Communication workshops. These are half-day workshops which focus on cross-cultural communication with additional information on Kimberley history and local Indigenous world view.

More information can be found at the Aboriginal Interpreter Service and Kimberley Interpreting Service websites (under ‘Further Information, Additional Resources and Associated Documents’).

Additional Resources and Associated Documents

Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait

National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI):

The Northern Territory, APY Lands, Ngaanyatjarra

Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service (NTAIS):

Western Australia

Kimberley Interpreting Service (KIS):

Western Australian Institute of Translators & Interpreters:


Commonwealth Ombudsman’s ‘Use of Interpreters’ (March 2009), including eight best practice principles for agencies using interpreter services:

The Multicultural Access and Equity Policy Guide:

Multicultural Language Services Guidelines:

Talking posters and books e.g.:


Use the following table to assess a person’s communication skills in English. If two or more of the points in the ‘likely to need an interpreter’ column applies to a person, you should organise an interpreter:


Likely to need an interpreter

Less likely to need an interpreter

Articulating back

The person has difficulty articulating back what you said to them.

The person is able to articulate meaningfully most of what you said to them, using their own words.

Short or long answers

The person only speaks in short sentences of four to five words. Or they mainly give one-word answers.

The person speaks in full sentences of six or seven words or more, and elaborate answers to questions.

Agrees or disagrees

The person consistently agrees with your questions or propositions you put to them.

The person is easily able to disagree and articulate a different point of view.

Inappropriate responses

The person frequently responds inappropriately to your comments or question, for example, responding with “yes” to what or where questions.

The person consistently responds meaningfully and appropriately to questions and comments.

Unsure of meaning

You are sometimes mystified as to what exactly your client is telling you even when the words and grammar they are using are clear to you.

You can process the person’s speech clearly and understand what it is they are telling you.


The person appears to contradict themselves, and is unaware of the apparent contradictions.

The person does not contradict themselves, or if they do, they are aware of and can address the contradiction.

Uses new vocabulary

The person does not add significant amounts of new vocabulary to the conversation. They rely on using the words or phrases that you have previously said to them.

The person frequently adds new vocabulary to the conversation.

Good grammar

The person does not use English grammatically, for example, mixes up pronouns (“he” instead of “she”); uses the past tense incorrectly (“He look at me”).

The person uses English grammatically.

Repeating and simplifying

You find yourself frequently needing to restate and simplify your utterances.

You can talk easily in a normal manner.


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