We are not translators nor interpreters.

ASIO, one of Australia’s highest level defence and security organisations recently advertised for linguists. As I’ve been looking for some work (though I currently have some), it was suggested that I apply. I considered it for a few seconds, until I read the description:

“As a linguist you will use your skills to help ASIO assess threats to Austrealia’s national security.” No problem there. But then:

“On a typical day you will transcribe and translate large volumes of communications product into English.” and “If you can understand any of the languages spoken in the following regions, and have an in-depth understanding of the society and culture, we would like to hear from you.”

What.

There are two things I’d like to point out here:

1. The job title says “linguist”, but the job description is more like that of a translator, who has a very different skill-set.

2. The job description doesn’t seem to completely understand the job of a translator either.

Translators are trained to know the best way to translate a given text in their language(s) of specialty. It requires more than understanding, because you need to understand ways to translate idiom, have good skills in written and spoken English, and know what to do when there is no direct translation, or more than one possibility. These are important in translating fiction, certainly, but very important when national security is involved.

Linguists are not necessarily fluent in the languages they are studying. We try, but it’s not always practical. We aren’t necessarily trained in translation.

Sure, some linguists are translators and some translators are linguists, but they are quite different professions. ASIO assuredly needs people to do these tasks, but mislabelling them is contributing to the notion that linguist = polyglot.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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