Current Issue #477

Montefiore: Which second language comes first?

Montefiore: Which second language comes first?

As we observe the rise and rise of China, Sir Monty has accepted a brief to devise a special test to assess the translation abilities of those who inhabit the unique space between English and Mandarin in the City of Adelaide.

Between regular visits to the bank to deposit fresh discoveries of Old Adelaide Money, Sir Monty often muses on the wonders of language and mankind’s ability to communicate. This is despite the fact that among the world’s 7+billion people, vast numbers cannot speak each other’s languages. Fortunately for Australia, our states’ and territories’ dialects and colloquialisms all fall into the ‘English’ basket and, except for Queensland, seldom require an interpreter. Of course, Queensland chatter enjoys a status all of its own. By contrast, in South Australia’s billabong of chatter, the City of Adelaide, only one other language enjoys a special status: Mandarin.

Sir Monty has received many briefs in his time. But perhaps the most challenging is going to be how he reports to Town Hall on the success (or not) of a recent bid to pay a Mandarin speaker $6000 to visit Town Hall’s customer centre two days weekly, for three hours per day, over three months, to offer a free face-to-face translation service in Mandarin. The matter arose as a result of a March 2019 motion on notice by the city’s only Chinese councillor, Zhuopeng Hou. The idea first got up to enable Town Hall to communicate with foreign visitors, residents and business owners. The original motion then got changed such that the idea would be only pursued if it occurred ‘with a view to fostering the adoption and understanding of English’. But the outcome now is to hire a translator to chat in native Mandarin so that customers don’t have to use English. Curious. By the time the whole shebang got approved everyone had forgotten that special amendment.

Chinese tops the list for non-English chatter in the city. Town Hall says that the dominant language, other than English, is Mandarin, claiming that 14.6 per cent of the city’s population (3222 people) speak it at home.

In customer service terms, the Mandarin exclusivity is not such good news for city folks that instead prefer Afrikaans, Bahasa Indonesian, Bahasa Malaysian, Bosnian, Croatian, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Gujarti, Hindi, Hokkien, Italian, Kannada, Korean, Marathi, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Sindhi, Spanish or Tamil. But from a business perspective Town Hall says it makes sense because about 85 per cent of business migrant applications into South Australia are from China, followed by Vietnam (six per cent) and Malaysia (five per cent). The success rate of those applications wasn’t revealed.

In contemplation of how Sir Monty will frame his future report to Town Hall he has devised a unique test. The Chinese community in Adelaide features some very clever people. Among the world’s richest, many Chinese top the list. But in all languages there are euphemisms, similes and metaphors that are sometimes beyond translation, and it will be on this matter that Sir Monty will base his assessment of the translation service. You are sworn to secrecy about this. Treat it as if you were a member of the Chinese Communist Party, for which discretion, secrecy and codes are second nature.

As anyone in business in Adelaide knows, in contrast to the free-wheeling, open economy thriving in the People’s Republic of China, where capitalism has led to a flowering of democracy, few South Australian business ventures get up unless state politicians know all about them ahead of time. This is because the success of many a business proposition apparently depends on tapping into a labyrinth of government grants and other handouts. But approaches to the SA state party in power initially result in a cautious, coded response. This is a deliberate test for newcomers to ensure that the state executive can assess whether the applicant’s translation skills are empathetic to the party. Crack the code, and a new business proposal stands a reasonable chance of tapping the jackpot. Importantly, the code can be equally baffling for many other ordinary South Australians, even if they speak native English. In this way, no-one will be able to accuse Sir Monty of bias; of setting an unreasonably high standard for the Mandarin speakers. Everyone is on what the translators might describe as ‘a grassy, level playing cricket field’. Under Sir Monty’s direction, a vital ‘test piece’ will become key to the assessment challenge. Sometime in the next few weeks, a random Mandarin speaking visitor to Town Hall will approach the service, seeking a translation of a key document. Much will depend on the result. Here it is.

“I am delighted to announce a package of measures to address today’s policy challenge, featuring a broad suite of modest but aspirational variables that will allow us to pull the necessary policy levers to embrace a future of considerable buoyancy. I have great confidence that, having massaged all of the options, next steps will send a strong, front-foot signal that the state is committed to keep the door open to everything now laid on the table. It has been vitally important to test the waters and to establish the depth of likely commitment and, through the determined adoption of best-practice procedure, we are now ideally placed to trigger active contemplation. Having flagged this exciting new direction, we are therefore in an on-balance position to stand back and reflect on our progress, going forward.”

Anticipate Sir Monty’s report soon.

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