Why translating English to Aboriginal languages is so hard

There is no single 'Aboriginal word' for an English one. Cultural differences make translating between Aboriginal and other languages very difficult. 'Informed consent' is a long way away.

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What is the Aboriginal word for...?

A frequent question of people with good intentions but little knowledge about Aboriginal languages is "What's the Aboriginal word for...?"

They forget that there were about 250 languages prior to colonisation many of which had several dialects. It's like asking "What is the European word for...?"

To find an answer to this question you need to investigate:

  • Place. Which region of Australia do you refer to? This determines the main language group and its dialect.
  • Language status. Is this language still spoken or has it already been lost? Despite many language preservation projects, only about a quarter are still 'alive' today.
  • Translation resource. If the last speaker of this language has passed on you need to search libraries for dictionaries. Early invaders sometimes recorded translations, but they are very likely incomplete and strongly biased to Western culture. If you are lucky to find a healthy language contact your local Aboriginal Land Council to find out if you can ask a native speaker of that language.

But ask yourself: Do you have a serious need for this translation or do you just want to enjoy the mystic feeling of 'something Aboriginal' in your world?

Homework: Indicators of Aboriginal diversity

The variety of Aboriginal languages and their dialects is one of many indicators of Aboriginal diversity.


  • What other indicators can you think of?
  • Find two examples for each indicator you came up with and add a proof to it (screenshot, citation, photo, quote, ...).

Free, prior and informed consent

Governments and companies that work with Aboriginal communities or on their lands are required to get Aboriginal people's 'free, prior and informed consent' (FPIC) before they can continue with their business.

Oxfam defines : "FPIC entitles Indigenous peoples to determine the outcome of decision-making that affects them – it is not merely a right to be consulted about projects that others will ultimately make decisions about. FPIC offers the best guarantee that the negative impacts of large projects will be avoided, and that Indigenous Peoples’ economic, social and cultural rights will be protected."

Getting this consent can be really, really hard, as you'll see in a minute. That is why the non-Aboriginal parties are tempted to give only tokenistic attention to this process because they need to 'tick it off'.

All parties still have a long way to go in order to secure the principle of free, prior and informed consent.

— Dr Murray Garde, interpreter in the Kunwinjku language of Western Arnhem Land

Aboriginal languages are different

Interpreting between languages from the same cultural background (e.g. Europe) is fairly easy. Often these languages share the same origin. Spanish, French and Portuguese, for example, are all derived from Latin.

English and an Aboriginal language don't have a common cultural background, leading to a series of challenges. Dr Murray Garde, who has been working as an interpreter in the Kunwinjku language of Western Arnhem Land for more than 20 years, explains them :

  • No exact equivalent words. English words and concepts don't have exact analogue equivalents in Aboriginal languages. Just think of the difficulty of explaining what exactly the 'Dreaming' is. As a result, a lot of paraphrasing is required to explain concepts or terms that are part of only one of the two languages.
  • English proficiency not obvious. Even if an Aboriginal person can speak English it is often not obvious to what level they can articulate themselves and understand others. Especially when asking for FPIC topics can be very complex (mining, land tenure, community governance, legal issues, climate change science, medical procedures, etc.). Who has the expertise to assess someone's second language competency?
  • Low education. There are many reasons why Aboriginal people were unable to access high school education.
  • Making others happy. Aboriginal people may follow through the consultation process to keep others who pressure them happy, but they do not necessarily share such foreign cultural protocols for establishing community consent and consensus. Some don't even understand the document they have just signed.
  • Different understanding. After the Traditional Owners of Gunbalanya, in Western Arnhem Land, NT, had signed an "Agreement in Principle" they told their interpreter that in signing the document they were expressing a willingness to have further discussions with the Australian government, but not any intention to agree or disagree with the subject matter. They were open to further discussions -- and that was all. Clearly the government representatives thought otherwise.
  • Different backgrounds. Negotiations often involve technical and legal complexities with serious implications for Aboriginal people and their assets. Understanding these complex issues also means sharing a vast amount of non-Aboriginal cultural and legal knowledge that can be taken for granted by one side but not the other.
  • Different concepts of numeracy. Quantification and numbers are not easy concepts for languages which do not specialise in them. Numbers in phrases that keep appearing in English, such as "99-year lease" and "Section 19" or "Section 19A", are confusing hard to understand for Aboriginal people because often no one has taken the time to explain what they mean. It has just been assumed that this is shared cultural and legal knowledge when clearly it is not.

No wonder that negotiations often cause stress and irritation for traditional owners.

Communication across the cultural divide is hard enough at the best of times.

— Dr Murray Garde, interpreter in the Kunwinjku language of Western Arnhem Land


View article sources (2)

[1] 'Free, prior and informed consent', Oxfam,, retrieved 14/1/2015
[2] [2a] [2b] 'Lost without translation: what the Bininj missed', Land Rights News Northern Edition, October 2014/Edition 4, pp.4-5

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Why translating English to Aboriginal languages is so hard, <>, retrieved 14 June 2024

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