NAJIT Spotlight: Interview of Dr. Dave Gilbert

By Proteus Staff

Dr. David Gilbert

Dr. Gilbert is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force School of Languages and is currently an accredited professional Vietnamese translator. He served with the Royal Australian Navy as a cryptologic linguist participating in numerous US-Australia military operations before working in various government departments in areas of intelligence and security. Having extensive experience in national security and law enforcement operations, Dr. Gilbert obtained a master’s degree in translating and interpreting studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Melbourne. This was closely followed by successful completion of his doctoral dissertation which focused on Australia’s language capability relied upon to combat serious and organized crime. Having published the findings of his research, Dr. Gilbert decided to study law and recently graduated from the Juris Doctor program at RMIT University in Melbourne. He has presented at universities and international conferences in Australia and the US on the subject of evidence law and forensic translation.

Dr. Gilbert holds military awards for active service during the Gulf War and special operations. He is currently the Chair of the Vietnamese panel of examiners for the Australian National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) and is a member of the Law Institute of Victoria, and the Submarines Association of Australia. His hobbies include physical fitness and visual arts.

Proteus: Tell our readers about yourself. Where are you from and where are you currently based?

I am from Australia, and I am currently based in Melbourne. I grew up in a small rural town and at 17 I joined the Royal Australian Navy. All I wanted to be was a cook but the navy had other plans and I was trained as a cryptologic linguist gaining formal qualifications in Vietnamese and French. I left the navy after 20 years of service, which included tours of duty on submarines involved in Cold War operations and on HMAS Brisbane during the first Gulf War. I then held a number of intelligence and security related positions in various Australian government departments prior to undertaking a lengthy period of full-time tertiary study.

Proteus: You experienced active duty during the first Gulf War in 1991. Did you use your language skills?

Yes. The Royal Australian Navy’s Clearance Diving Team worked closely with French military personnel disarming sea mines in the vicinity of Kuwait harbor. I translated communications between the Commander of the Australian Task Group and senior French military personnel in relation to operational matters.

Proteus: After leaving the navy you worked as a manager for the Australian Customs Service. Did you use your language skills there?

Yes. I was engaged to assist in negotiations with French officials in New Caledonia to expand Australia’s coastal surveillance capability to detect illegal activity threatening Australia’s security interests. The primary concern at the time was to address increases in the importation of illicit drugs and to strengthen the integrity of Australia’s borders to counter illegal immigration.

Proteus: What led you to acquiring professional accreditation as a Vietnamese translator?

Generally speaking, native English speakers have difficulty becoming proficient in the Vietnamese language due to its unique sounds and tones. I found that I was able to grasp the language quite quickly and I soon developed an interest in Vietnamese culture. I set an objective to specialize in Vietnamese translation which led to professional accreditation. It was a long, hard road but well worth it.

...I decided to study law in order to fully understand the difficulties legal practitioners face when an interpreter or translator is involved in court proceedings.

Proteus: When did you join NAJIT and what was your educational background then?

I had completed a masters of translation and interpreting in 2012 and I joined NAJIT in 2014 when I was nearing completion of my PhD. I had yet to consider undertaking the Juris Doctor program.

Proteus: You said that your experience with NAJIT inspired you to pursue the JD, for which you are extremely grateful. Please tell us how NAJIT inspired you to embark on the JD journey.   

My first involvement with NAJIT was when I attended and presented at the 36th NAJIT Annual Conference held in Atlanta, Georgia in 2015. At the conference I was fortunate to meet with Professor Clifford Fishman who presented on translated transcripts used as evidence in Court. It was then that I realized that the justice system imposes many constraints in relation to evidence which conflict with the subjective nature of interpreting and translating. Also, after listening to Judge James Clayton deliver his keynote speech at the conference dinner, it was clear to me that there is still a lot of work to be done to improve the provision of interpreting and translating services in court to conduct a fair trial. It was then that I decided to study law in order to fully understand the difficulties legal practitioners face when an interpreter or translator is involved in court proceedings.

Proteus: In addition to finishing law school, what brought you to pursue a Master’s in Translation and Interpretation Studies and a PhD? Where and how did you pursue all three programs?

I decided to pursue a Masters of Translating and Interpreting Studies in 2011 and graduated in 2012. I then moved straight into a PhD and focused on evaluating Australia’s language capability that is relied upon by law enforcement and national security agencies to combat serious and organized crime including terrorism. I completed the PhD in 2015 and commenced the Juris Doctor program in early 2016. I graduated from the Juris Doctor program in February of this year. All three degrees were undertaken full-time at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne. It took seven years of full-time study to complete the three degrees. I am still unsure how I managed to get through it all. Gallons of coffee and very late nights perhaps. However, I do know that it would not have been possible but for the support and guidance I received from my family, friends and lecturers.

Proteus: How have all these accomplishments impacted your career? What opportunities have they brought you?

The knowledge I have gained from studying the three degrees has opened up a broad range of opportunities, particularly in areas of law. The JD has enabled me to further my research into problems associated with translated transcripts from electronic surveillance presented as evidence in court. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present a paper at the 6th International Conference on Evidence Law and Forensic Science held in Baltimore, Maryland last year on the topic of alleged drug-related code words and the reliability of expert opinion evidence. My studies and research enabled me to make a significant contribution to improving Australia’s language capability relied upon to combat organized crime including terrorism.  This was achieved by identifying shortfalls in the training of interpreters and translators, achieving general acknowledgement that transcription skills are a hybrid of interpreting and translation skills not normally undertaken in community interpreting situations.

Proteus: During your seven years of studies, you also managed the Panel of Vietnamese Examiners for Australia’s National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters. How did you become involved in this work?

I have been on the Panel of Vietnamese Examiners since 1997 and was appointed Chair of the Panel in 2010. I manage a team of highly skilled and proficient Vietnamese interpreters and translators. Our role is to develop interpreting and translation tests for the national accreditation authority. We also mark tests completed by candidates wishing to attain professional standing. There are very few native English speakers in Australia with professional qualifications in translating and/or interpreting Vietnamese. Our role is to set and mark tests for para-professional and professional certification. It is very rewarding from a professional perspective.

Proteus: What can you tell us about the specialist certification for interpreters working in a legal setting that Australia plans to introduce this year? Have you been involved in these efforts?

The National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters undertook a rigorous study of what specialist interpreting services are required in areas of law. I was a member of a working group assigned to identify competencies required of interpreters working in a legal setting and to develop a testing format for certification as a “Certified Specialist Interpreter (Legal).” The new specialist stream aims to improve the delivery of interpreting services in a variety of legal settings, particularly in our courts.

Proteus: What percentage of candidates actually achieve professional qualifications as an interpreter/translator?

In the past ten years it would be accurate to say that less than ten percent of candidates have achieved accreditation as professional Vietnamese interpreters or translators. Australia is currently transitioning from a system of accreditation to certification of its interpreters and translators. This process involves significant changes in training and the testing format and it is anticipated that the pass rate will increase.

Proteus: Does Australia have an association of judiciary interpreters and translators?

Not yet. However, the new certification system establishes a specialist stream of legal interpreters which may, in time, result in an association being formed.

Proteus: Your doctoral dissertation identified deficiencies in Australia’s language capability relied upon by law enforcement agencies to combat serious and organized crime. What were those deficiencies?

The deficiencies I identified were mainly concerned with translated transcripts (Vietnamese to English) from telephone interception and listening devices used as evidence in drug-related trials. I found that the way alleged code-words were translated had the potential to mislead the court. This led to identifying causal factors which included inadequate training of community interpreters and deficiencies in the accreditation system.

Proteus: Interpreters often remark that court officials don’t understand the difficulties faced by court interpreters. Have you heard the same thing in Australia?

Yes. Interpreters often comment that they do not receive adequate briefings about the case prior to interpreting in court. They also become frustrated when court officials don’t adjust their speed of speech when speaking through an interpreter. This is one of the primary reasons why I decided to study law. I wanted to see the court interpreter/translator from the perspective of a lawyer.

Proteus: What revelations arising out of your studies have you had about interpreting and the law?

The language of the law is written with the purpose of specificity while also ensuring a degree of flexibility to enable the justice system to apply legal principles to a broad spectrum of cases. While there is an effort to write laws in simple English, sometimes this is difficult to achieve. A good interpreter needs to understand how to effectively and accurately negotiate the communication of legal principles and concepts. Literal renditions seldom prove to be an effective approach to communicating the intended meaning of written law.

Also, the courts have an obligation to move through cases quickly in the interests of ensuring that justice is delivered fairly and efficiently. It is usually the case that trials are relatively lengthier when a court interpreter is required. The courts will appreciate an interpreter who is punctual, well-presented, clear and articulate. However, my research revealed that court interpreters often feel they are not trusted with access to confidential information prior to the commencement of trials. The tension lies between ethical obligations lawyers have to protect their clients’ confidentiality and adequately briefing interpreters to achieve optimal interpreting performance in court. Barristers and solicitors are very careful with information relating to the way they run their cases. They are bound by ethical rules to protect information divulged to them by their client and they have an obligation to act in their client’s best interest after their paramount duty to the Court. However, there is always room for improved cooperation between lawyers and interpreters to optimize the accuracy of court interpreting which will inevitably improve the integrity of the judicial process. In an effort to address this and other issues, the Judicial Council on Cultural Diversity has published recommended standards for working with interpreters in courts and tribunals. Recognition that interpreters are officers of the court is a major achievement in this area. This emphasizes the paramount duties an interpreter owes to the Court to interpret accuracy and impartiality overriding any duty the interpreter may have to any party to the proceedings.

Proteus: In which area of law do you intend to practice?

A barrister recently advised me to choose an area of law where I feel most comfortable. As I have extensive experience in national security and law enforcement, I see myself working in the area of criminal prosecution or international law.

Proteus: What area of law do you consider a court interpreter should be most familiar with?

An understanding of criminal and civil procedure is very important. Interpreters need to understand the meanings of key legal concepts that are frequently referred to in court. For example, in US courts, I would imagine that court interpreters would need to be familiar with Federal Rules of Evidence 701 and 702 and understand why those rules are important in relation to expert witness testimony, especially for those interpreters or translators who may be called as expert witnesses themselves. The rules often require knowledge of how and when they are applied in order to bring context to their application. However, this may be considered advanced knowledge that court interpreters might aspire to obtaining.

Proteus: Your story is certainly inspiring. What can you tell our readers regarding a career in legal translation and interpretation? What challenges do you see coming our way?

There are a number of interesting areas of law where interpreters and translators can refine their skills. Police interpreting is one such area and there will always be a demand for it. Forensic interviewing techniques are constantly being refined and updated to optimize the effectiveness of witness responses. This means that interpreters need to be able to mirror the questioning format as closely as possible and to interpret with minimal interruption to ensure that investigative interviewing techniques achieve maximum effect.

In relation to future challenges, we are seeing an increase in the number of police interviews using telephone interpreter services and court trials using videoconferencing. These forms of disruptive technology require interpreters to adapt quickly to technological change and to find ways of mitigating limitations imposed by the method of communication. For example, a police interview conducted through an interpreter over the phone will deny the interpreter information derived from body language which may affect the flow of interpreting. Also, in phone interviews, the interpreter has a reduced ability to control the flow of communication between participants in the interview. I see significant challenges also coming from those advances in the development of automated interpreting/translating technology. Google translate, for example, has come a long way from where it began in 2006. Having said that, I think most will agree that there is a long way to go before interpreters and translators will be replaced by machines, if in fact this ever occurs. Perhaps the intuitive aspect of human language is a factor that machines will never be able to replicate.

Thank you very much for sharing your experience with our readers.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NAJIT.

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