Van Thu Pham was 11 when she arrived in Australia after a five-day ordeal in a wooden boat as her family of seven escaped from Communist Vietnam. They ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia, then, after a few months, landed in Brisbane where she started high school. Pham enrolled in teachers college but found she didn’t have the patience for young children. A few years later, she married and moved to Sydney where she enrolled in a three-year degree in interpreting and translation at what was then the University of Western Sydney. The year after graduation, 1990, she started work at what was then the Ethic Affairs Commission (now Multicultural NSW). On her second day, she was posted to Central Local Court to simultaneously interpret in a two-week committal trial of four men accused of murder. Last year, Multicultural NSW interpreters completed 11,350 cases in courts in 85 languages. Arabic, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Persian are the most common languages translated and interpreted. As nearly one in four Australians has been born overseas, it’s not surprising how vital and busy these services have become. Pham, 49, tells JANE SOUTHWARD about the highs and lows of her work life.
“Sometimes, people will see an interpreter and say, ‘I am so glad you are here. Can you please help me with this or that? Or tell them this?’ I have to say, ‘Sorry, I am just here to interpret for the court. I am here because the court requires you to understand what is going on. If you need help, there’s your lawyer to ask. I am here to help you talk to your lawyer, but I can’t help you with anything else or give you advice or any knowledge.
’ It can be a hard job. I can understand the feeling of fear and uncertainty for a person going to court for something, whether they did it or not. It’s still a feeling of uncertainty, and you just want to grab onto the next person who you can identify with through language to give you some confidence.