Australia in Heated Debate Over Major Translator, Interpreter Accreditation Reform

Professional translators and interpreters in Australia are in for a big change as the accreditation system that has been in place for around 40 years is set to be replaced by a new certification model by January 2018.

The National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI), a company jointly owned by the nine governments of Australia and established in 1977 to manage the national Quality Assurance system for the translating and interpreting industry, has been weighing in on the changes for years.

NAATI CEO Mark Painting told Slator in an email interview that the organization is keen to introduce a system that “will level the playing field by ensuring all practitioners will need to meet the same requirements (via recertification) to continue holding their credential.”

A NAATI accreditation gives language services professionals a ‘quality seal,’ signifying that they meet certain standards to provide services to government agencies and the private sector.

Under the current system, NAATI offers accreditation testing in over 60 languages at four different levelsParaprofessional Translator or Paraprofessional Interpreter, Professional Translator or Professional Interpreter, Advanced Translator or Conference Interpreter, and Advanced (Senior) Translator or Conference (Senior) Interpreter.

The new certification model will change the matrix. Transitioning from ‘accreditation’ to ‘certification,’ the new levels will now be known as Recognized Practicing Translator/Interpreter, Certified Provisional Interpreter, Certified Translator/Interpreter, Certified Advanced Translator, Certified Specialist Interpreter (for Health and Legal Services), and Certified Conference Interpreter.

“The new system will level the playing field by ensuring all practitioners will need to meet the same requirements (via recertification) to continue holding their credential” — NAATI CEO Mark Painting

Apart from the name change, the revisions are centered on new training requirements before being eligible for certification, certification tests that consider a much broader range of knowledge and skills, and a new certification for professionals specializing in health and legal interpreting services, according to NAATI.

Painting says the updates will also enable the organization “to provide timely and reliable data reporting to the sector and government regarding the workforce profile and languages in demand.”

Is Change Really Necessary?

NAATI is hopeful that the new system will become a valued industry standard and notes that for the most part, the changes have been well received by the sector. But it also acknowledges that there remains a segment of the industry opposed to any change.

“We can certainly appreciate that some practitioners are worried about the scale and magnitude of this change and our staff are spending as much time as possible engaging with practitioners,” says Painting.

Change is necessary, agrees Heather Glass, a NAATI Professional Translator and Interpreter (Japanese to English), a Fellow of the Western Australian Institute of Translators and Interpreters, Inc. (WAITI), a member of the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators (AUSIT), and until recently a member and the Western Australian delegate for the Translator and Interpreter Division, Professionals Australia.

However, she says that what is absolutely necessary to raise the standards of professionalism in the industry is to make formal qualification a prerequisite to enter the occupation.

“NAATI’s acceptance that formal qualification is not just a pathway, but the clearly preferred pathway to its credential, is common sense; something that has long been absent from the translation and interpretation sector, particularly in regard to NAATI and its system,” she explains.

If the testing of translators and interpreters is to continue, she strongly believes that improvements to NAATI tests and testing are imperative.

“Concern with NAATI’s test standards and test administration has been documented in research and government literature as far back as the 1980s, particularly so in the early 2000s, which ultimately led to the Improvements to NAATI Testing (INT) report,” she says.

Among professional translators and interpreters, a fierce debate is raging on regarding the pros and cons of the proposed changes, which underscores the importance of the new certification system to the industry.

Michele Miller, an accredited professional Japanese-English translator with a translation degree from the Tokyo University of Languages and also a member of AUSIT, told Slator that while accreditation is not enshrined in law, it is a matter of policy, required for public sector work.

This includes “everything from ID documents (especially driver licenses) and personal certificates for those migrating to Australia (be it for personal or employment purposes), to documents for corporate entities and private individuals wishing to establish a business presence in Australia.”

She adds, “In the private sector, law firms ask for accreditation, as do financial institutions (to translate documents such as proof of income and bank statements required for real estate loans), and insurance companies (to translate documents related to insurance claims).”

As it is now, she says that regardless of the language training, new practitioners find it extremely challenging to get a foot in the door. It is also difficult to find mentors and hard to pay the bills. And it is mainly private sector translation that will provide enough work to pay the bills and satisfy the NAATI certification requirements.

In one of the information campaigns that NAATI held in Melbourne and live streamed on YouTube on May 30, 2017, Robert Foote, NAATI Manager, Development, stressed that the goal of the organization is to serve the needs of the Australian community by ensuring that there is a pool of highly skilled translators and interpreters.

“There’s been feedback that the system lacks responsiveness to changing demands. So in some cases, this is in relation to new and emerging languages, the ability to deal with the supply of interpreters and those new and emerging languages. In others, it’s to do with the skills and knowledge needed for professional work, so the professional changes in those skills change and the system have to be able to adapt,” he explains.

No More Permanent Accreditation

One of the major issues raised by translators and interpreters who attended the Melbourne event is the loss of permanent accreditation obtained by senior professionals prior to 2007, as the industry transitions to the new model that requires recertification every three years.  

Painting clarified that NAATI is not taking any old accreditations but it is encouraging professionals holding existing credentials to prioritize certification and transition to the new system. Fees will be waived until June 2018.

“We are working with service providers and governments with the view that they will prioritize certification above accreditation,” he explains. “They won’t expire, but we believe they will be diminishing their value naturally because the certification will be the primary credential that is sought. We don’t control the process by how people get appointed or chosen, but we hope that service providers and large consumer agencies will see the merit in a certified practitioner over an accredited one.”

Many professionals with permanent accreditation like Miller are still undecided whether to transition to the new system.

“As a translator with 40 years’ professional experience and permanent accreditation, I will either have to opt into the new certification scheme (and have my name in the NAATI directory), or lose current clients in some cases and fail to attract new clients in general because NAATI has rejected the idea of continuing to list accredited, but un-certified practitioners in its directory. This is the same for all practitioners in my situation,” she shares.

“One could conceivably argue that if after 40 years I don’t know anything about ethics, mentoring, engaging in professional development of my own choosing, and maintaining a viable professional practice, then I never will. So will this be an effective use of my time moving forward?” she adds.

I will either have to opt into the new certification scheme (and have my name in the NAATI directory), or lose current clients in some cases and fail to attract new clients”  Michele Miller, accredited professional Japanese-English translator

Painting insists that NAATI credentials exist to give clients the confidence in a translator’s ability and professionalism. “Any practitioner holding NAATI certification is a dedicated professional who can consistently ensure they are meeting the needs of the industry,” he says. Furthermore, he points out that unlike the current system, the new certification system is “based upon a continuous improvement model, meaning that parts of the system will be adjusted based upon continuous feedback from practitioners, clients, language service providers and consumer.”

Glass, however, counters that “there is nothing to guarantee that government agencies will insist on only engaging certified practitioners, or certified practitioners at any particular level.”

She continues, “The reality is that they will continue to be unable to do so anyway, for all the usual reasons: geography, language speaker availability, unwillingness to pay for occupational competence, inability to identify occupational incompetence, and so on.”

Four Years in the Making

Painting reveals that NAATI has spent the last few years developing the new system. A study commissioned in 2011 and the resulting report prepared by Prof. Sandra Hale from the School of International Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The University of New South Wales, along with contributing authors Ignacio Garcia (University of Western Sydney), Jim Hlavac (Monash University) Mira Kim (University of NSW) Miranda Lai (RMIT University) Barry Turner (RMIT University), and Helen Slatyer (Macquarie University), formed the basis of the new changes.

In a statement sent to Slator, Karen Hodgson, CEO of the Melbourne-based language service provider Translationz, says that the company welcomes the high standards and expectations set forth in the new certification system.

She shares, “We believe that translators and interpreters will prosper tremendously from the additional training and professional development requirements. With improved testing standards, we believe we will all benefit  from sharpening our skills and the entire language service industry in Australia will be elevated and measurably regarded.”

Tea C. Dietterich, CEO, 2M Language Services and President of the Australasian Association of Language Companies (AALC), also supports the new changes.

“I always welcome change and I encourage everyone to look into the new certification scheme and listen to the NAATI videos and attend their information workshops rather than speculate,” she says.

Dietterich, who is also a Committee Member of the NAATI Technical Revision Advisory Committee (TRAC) advising NAATI and the Australian government on certification and other issues, is encouraging professionals to give the system a chance.

She says the AALC is currently conducting a survey to gauge industry sentiment on the new certification scheme among LSPs and their freelance translator teams.