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1986 to the 2000s: How it all began – a brief history of NZSTI

17 Aug 2023

Written by Patrick King, former President, founding member, and Fellow of NZSTI

After graduating from Canterbury University in languages, with little idea of what my future career might be, I was lucky enough to land a job as a junior translator at the Department of Internal Affairs’ Translation Service in the mid-1970s.

On reporting for my first day of work in Wellington’s “corridors of power”, I was shocked to find that instead of the vast array of brilliant translators I was expecting, I was confronted with a tiny office with only five staff.

In the 1970s, this little office was the heart of what would eventually become a fully-fledged translation and interpreting industry. An Austrian émigré, Peter Klarwill, had been appointed the first Chief Translator in 1949 when a translation service was established by the New Zealand government to cope with the language needs of refugees and immigrants arriving in New Zealand after World War II. Klarwill was later succeeded by a young language graduate, Bill Aldridge, a very gifted translator who passed away in 2023.

This operation was more of a cottage industry: small, isolated, with output of dubious quality and sparse reference material – but it was pretty well all there was at the time.

If we fast forward to the mid-1980s we see an altogether different picture. The government Translation Service was now charging for much of its work and providing translations for a growing export sector – particularly necessary after Britain had joined the Common Market. The Translation Service by that time had around 11 staff.

This was a pivotal time for the industry: within just a few years NZSTI was established, along with The New Zealand Translation Centre Ltd, the Wellington Community Interpreting Service (later to become Interpreting NZ), and interpreting services were formed at Middlemore Hospital and at the Manukau Court.

It was also a time of huge economic change in New Zealand, with de-regulation and so-called Rogernomics. In rapid succession we witnessed the introduction of the fax machine, the modem, affordable computers, and then the landmark arrival of the Internet and email.

Overnight translation for overseas markets was started at the New Zealand Translation Centre Ltd (NZTC), using New Zealand’s time zone advantage, and over the next two decades a globally networked industry developed in New Zealand, exporting its services to customers throughout the world, with greatly increased productivity and quality, and unlimited access to reference material.

So where exactly did our incorporated Society of Translators and Interpreters, NZSTI, spring from all those years ago?

In the early 1980s Senior Translator Bill Aldridge attended a meeting in Auckland with a handful of Auckland-based translators and interpreters, and they initiated a plan to form a national association.

It took about two years to prepare a constitution, but one of the more challenging tasks was finding the 12 practitioners required to sign the deed of incorporation. That reflects just how few people there were in the translation and interpreting business in New Zealand at the time.

In 1987, at the urging of Patrick Delhaye, owner-operator of a private translation agency in Auckland, the newly formed NZSTI joined the International Federation of Translators (FIT) and regular national conferences began. The Australian NAATI exam system was adopted as the standard for entry.

By the time future NZSTI President Dr Sabine Fenton arrived in New Zealand from Europe she would have encountered a fledgling organisation divided in its approach to its entry standards and unsure of its direction: Was it to be a Social Club or a Professional Body? Dr Fenton drove the reincorporation of NZSTI after it had slipped into a short state of dormancy, and she moved to re-establish membership in FIT.

The following passage from Sabine’s own story in the NZSTI newsletter Word for Word says a lot about her role as a key person in the rebirth of NZSTI and professionalisation of the industry:

“Before coming to New Zealand I lived in Australia for 12 years and had experienced the way that multi-cultural country had established and developed their community, healthcare, legal and commercial interpreting and translation needs, resources and industry. Equipped with this background knowledge, my own training at the interpreting schools of the University of Mainz in Germany and the University of Geneva, and my professional practice as a translator and interpreter, I set to work.”

So a dose of German and Swiss scholarship and academic tradition, exposure to the well-developed Australian model, and a realisation of how far New Zealand had to go in developing a profession of interpreting and translating, and becoming a serious participant at the international level, all contributed to fire up Sabine and led to a revitalised NZSTI.

The fruits of the efforts of Sabine Fenton and many other contributors to NZSTI are impressive. From those early national meetings of about 25 people, NZSTI now has over 700 members, a long-established website, a history of high-quality annual conferences, and Memoranda of Understanding with the Australian sister-association AUSIT, the Māori Language Commission, NZ Sign Language interpreters, and an online National Directory of practising members accessible to user groups.

NZSTI’s relationship with FIT has been very active, with past-President Henry Liu being elected President of FIT at the Congress in Berlin in 2014, a remarkable achievement that gave New Zealand strong representation at the highest level.

Important as it is, NZSTI is really just another stage in the historical path of translation and interpreting in New Zealand. There had already been a long history of translation and interpreting between English and Māori in the post-colonial period. Those activities continue to evolve and grow in their own way and sometimes with their own structures. But that’s another story …


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