Is Australia an English speaking country? The answer seems obvious.

Although Australia has no official language, English is so widely spoken that a full life in Australia is virtually impossible if you don’t speak English.

However, census data shows that over 20% of Australians speak languages ​​other than English at home and over 300 languages ​​are spoken in Australia.

Many of those who speak other languages ​​are not proficient in English and need translators and interpreters to manage their daily lives. Translators and interpreters play an important role in promoting social harmony in Australia, yet so little is known about this group of people.

In fact, many people don’t even know the difference between translation and interpreting. The biggest difference between interpretation and translation is that interpreters orally translate the spoken language, while translators translate the written word. Both groups possess a thorough knowledge of a foreign language as well as clear communication skills.

Read more: Squid Game and the “untranslatable”: the debate around subtitles explained

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that translators and interpreters are invisible in Australia. Given their low public profile here, some may be surprised to learn that in other parts of the world, acting is seen as glamorous and highly publicized.

Performers as celebrities in Korea

In South Korea, some performers, especially Anglo-Korean performers, enjoy celebrity status. They frequently appear in local media as role models for their fluency in English, an extremely popular language in Korea.

One example is Ahn Hyun-Mo, a performer who rose to fame after performing for a series of high profile events including the 2018 US-North Korea summit, the Grammy Awards and the Oscars. She is a regular guest of various TV programs and even models in advertising.

Another example is Sharon Choi, known as Bong Joon-Ho, the director of the Oscar-winning film Parasite. Choi’s flawless and eloquent portrayal has garnered widespread praise, with fans across Korea and beyond giving her the title of “the world’s perfect translator.”

Performer Sharon Choi (left) and Parasite director Bong Joon-ho speaks at the 35th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Being an interpreter in Korea usually means that the person has mastered the language “to perfection” through dedication and hard work, hence the high praise. In bookstores, it is not uncommon to find books written by performers as well as autobiographies of famous performers in which they deliver their secrets on mastering a foreign language. What a contrast to Australia.

Popularity of interpreting in China

The interpreting profession is also highly valued in China. Some top performers have become famous for their excellent interpretation and desirable English accents amid the popularity of learning English among Chinese people.

A good example is Zhang Jing, known as “China’s most beautiful performer”. Zhang’s excellent acting and aesthetics made news during a bilateral meeting between China and the United States in Alaska in 2021. After the summit, his name became one of the most searched topics on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.

Another famous performer is Zhang Lu, an English-speaking career diplomat who has served a number of Chinese leaders and garnered a devoted following with her flawless interpretation. There was also the popular TV drama The Interpreter, featuring Chinese-French performers, which garnered 100 million views within a week after its release in 2016.

Chinese translator Zhang Jing interprets at a press conference in Beijing, 2016.

Why are translators and interpreters invisible in Australia?

Given the popularity of interpreters in other countries, it is natural to wonder why so little attention is given to translation and interpreting in Australia. A major factor may be the lack of interest in foreign language learning in Australian society.

Public interest in language learning is frustratingly low in Australia. A 2018 report showed that only 8% of Australian students report learning two or more foreign languages, compared to 50% of students in OECD countries.

Also, since English is so prevalent here, fluency in another language is often not valued. In these circumstances, translation and interpreting are generally reserved for people with an immigrant background. The predominance of migrants in the profession of translator and interpreter may also be another reason why the professions are rarely recognised.

Read more: Australian students say they understand global issues, but few learn another language compared to OECD average

Why should we care?

The invisibility of translators and interpreters in Australia is not a problem limited to the profession but a social problem. People who speak little or no English rely on translators and interpreters to manage their daily lives. The profession needs to attract good people to help maintain social harmony in a multicultural Australia, but this is a challenge when there is little social awareness or recognition of the important work done by interpreters and translators.

Language is a valuable resource that migrants bring to Australia, and Australia should use its linguistic diversity wisely to build a truly multicultural society. A thriving multicultural society is one where value is placed on all its residents, and translation and interpretation is an ideal place from which to build a more resilient and united Australia.