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Vale Christopher Fox

NDS is sad to learn that Christopher Fox passed away on 11 January.

Why it's important for interpreters to understand the NDIS

two people having a discussion and looking at computer


Rather than translate word-to-word, interpreters decipher language to carry its meaning in a way that is both linguistically and culturally understandable, while taking into account the context of the person they are translating to.

There is a fine line between translating words and concepts and explaining or giving an opinion. The latter is not the role of an interpreter. 

Qualified interpreters are accredited by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) and follow a Code of Ethics. Their role is different from that of a bi-cultural or bi-lingual worker, who play more of a support role with clients.

The ability to transmit the meaning of concepts is nowhere more important than in the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Supported by funding from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health (CEH) has been running workshops for interpreters and translators in Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Karen, Chin, Turkish and Persian. All workshops have sold out quickly, which is evidence of the appetite of interpreters for a better understanding of this new and fairly complex system.

Workshops ask interpreters of the same language to agree amongst themselves about the translation of key NDIS terms. An example is the 'Insurance' aspect of the scheme. In many languages, the word 'insurance' means a business; a marketing entity. The idea that 'all share costs, all share risks to support those who need it' is not how the term is understood. Depending on their cultural background and on what exists in their country of origin, interpreters have chosen to translate insurance it as 'social security', 'like Medicare for disability', or 'guarantee'. Other terms that required equivalents rather than straight translation were 'accessibility', 'eligibility' and 'self-management'.

Regardless of their culture of origin, all groups have shared their concern about how difficult concepts of individual empowerment, choice and control are in cultures that are more collectivist than individualistic. By putting forward their own needs, people of CALD backgrounds living with disability may be wary of appearing arrogant or selfish, or that their family may feel that they are rejecting them. Furthermore, given the level of discrimination they may have experienced prior to coming to Australia (particularly around intellectual disabilities), the idea that they can dream, have 'goals' and exercise 'choice and control' may be foreign; many meetings will be necessary before a plan can be discussed and developed.

This work requires planners to be aware of the cultural context of NDIS participants, and of the barriers that may interfere with their ability to embrace the scheme. Part of this awareness is the recognition that interpreters play a vital role in the development of plans. Whether via the phone or face-to-face, interpreters need to be briefed properly in order to tailor their language to the person they are supporting. Knowing which stage of the NDIS pathway the person is at also helps them understand the context of the discussion and interpret in a way that is faithful to the English-speaker and can be understood by the NDIS participant.

For questions about CEH’s project with the NDIS, contact Sophie Dutertre, Senior Project Officer at CEH at  or on 9418 9911.

Contact information
Kate van der Drift, Stakeholder Communications Manager, 03 8341 4394,