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History of NZSTI

[This text is an unedited speech. Sybille was going to provide new text. An old photo would be good]

1986 - 2016: How it all began – a brief history of NZSTI
Patrick King

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 International Affairs’ Translation Service in the mid-1970s.

I was shocked on arriving at Wellington’s “corridors of power”, especially at the scale of the operation when I reported for my first day of work. Instead of the vast array of brilliant translators I was expecting, I was rather dismayed to find a tiny office with only five staff.

In the 1970s, this little office was the centre of what is today known as the New Zealand translation and interpreting industry. An Austrian émigré, Peter Klarwill, had been the first chief translator in 1949 and he was later succeeded by a young language graduate, Bill Aldridge, a very gifted translator.

This 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.

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 time of Brentry, you could say. 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.

This was 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.

Overnight translation for overseas markets was started at NZTC, using New Zealand’s time zone advantage.

So by 2016 we have a globally networked industry which is quite large, exporting a service to customers throughout the world, with greatly increased productivity and quality, and unlimited access to reference material.

Interpreting activities are now linked to the long standing and world-leading telephone interpreting infrastructure of Australia via Language Line, which has now processed around 500,000 calls. However, interpreting overall is still fragmented, with little uptake of technology for the actual interpreting transaction.

So where exactly did our birthday child, NZSTI, spring from over 30 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 hatched a plan to form a national association.

It took a couple of years to prepare a constitution, but one of the hardest 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 at the time.

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

By the time Dr Sabine Fenton arrived in New Zealand 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 our membership of FIT.

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

“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 and many other contributors to NZSTI are impressive. Just one example of these many dedicated volunteers is Gene Oh, a Korean translator and interpreter, who spent seven years as National Treasurer. From those early national meetings of about 25 people, we now have 600 members and growing, a website, a history of high-quality annual conferences, our newsletter Word for Word, and Memoranda of Understanding with the Australian sister-association AUSIT, the Maori Language Commission, NZ Sign Language interpreters, and an online National Directory of practising members accessible to user groups.

Our relationship with FIT has been very active, with our own past-President Henry Liu being elected President of FIT at the Congress in Berlin in 2014, a remarkable achievement that gives New Zealand strong representation at the highest level. Henry has been on the council of FIT since 2008. We have even more opportunity for involvement next year, when the FIT conference will take place in Brisbane.

Important as it is, NZSTI is really just another stage in the historical path of translation and interpreting in New Zealand. The paths followed and the structures developed are very different when we compare the several centuries of translation and interpreting of Te Reo Māori with the more recent activities involving the languages of science and technology, trade, law and the migrant communities. But that’s another story …


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