Thi Thu Ha Nguyen

Describe your journey as an interpreter

I first got a volunteer interpreting job in 1970 when my friend, a civilian services officer of the American 91st Advisory Team, asked me to help him with an arts display and musical event they organised for the local community in my small home town.

In the meantime, there were displaced people due to the battles near their homes who needed to be relocated and settled somewhere else. The advisory team needed an interpreter to communicate with these war victims so they could find some way to help and alleviate their sufferings, I kept helping them until their trained interpreters came on board.

The next year I started working at a Protestant orphanage, teaching year 3 students and doing interpreting and translating work for one year until I was offered a good job at the Institute of Agriculture and Agricultural Technology. This was a research company owned by a French government department where all of their employee’s second language was French while their official visitors were American and Korean who only spoke English. So I was hired as an interpreter wherever the management had meetings with these visitors.

Working with them was a really good experience. As a junior worker who always dreamed of being a professional interpreter, it was an eye-opening opportunity to explore a new and bigger world for myself.   

When the war ended in April 1975, the South Vietnamese people's livelihood changed dramatically; all foreign interests and businesses ceased. After more than a decade of working on rice fields for a living, I became an English teacher at a local secondary school and kept this job for 10 years before leaving Vietnam on a boat. My family arrived in Indonesia and stayed in Galang Refugee Camp for 4 years, waiting for our refugee status application to be assessed by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) under the CPA (Comprehensive Plan of Action). During this period, I successfully got a volunteer interpreting and translating job in the Eligibility Unit, where a team of international legal professionals interviewed and determined boat people's applications for refugee status. As the CPA neared its end, I was requested to work for the Human Rights Unit until leaving the camp for Australia permanently.

Since arriving in Australia, my family has started to go back to study. I was so lucky to be offered a place in the para-professional interpreter course, graduated, and successfully applied for a contract job with TIS National. Thanks to my years of practicing interpreting, I was able to complete another course to become a professional interpreter in 2003.

Can you recall the moment when you decided to become an interpreter? What/who inspired you to make that choice?

It was my first volunteer work with the 91st Advisory Team and the joy of learning a new language that gave me the wish to become a professional interpreter. That wish has been granted.

What part of being an interpreter do you find most rewarding?

When I know that the client agency and the NES are both happy with the outcome they achieved from the conversation that involved my work to make them understand each other.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering becoming an interpreter?

Be keen on learning new things, including people's background knowledge; keep practicing language skills; and be aware of the role, duty and responsibility required of an interpreter.

What is one skill you think everyone should have?

The ability to switch from one language to another while performing accurate interpreting in a timely manner between the two parties involved. Also, managing a tricky situation where there is a cultural issue is another one to try.

What aspect of interpreting do you consider most challenging and how do you manage it?

There are a few: when doing a phone interpreting job for a conference, for example in court or a tribunal the lack of vision makes things hard for interpreters as I am not sure who is talking to who because word-to-word interpreting is impossible. And if a speaker phone is used during the conference, that can be another challenge. The only option is to listen to the speaker carefully, write down key words, and sometimes ask them to clarify when needed. Another issue is when the NES on the telephone becomes upset or agitated with the professional, or even with the interpreter, and says rude things. I just keep my patience and don’t talk over or try to explain or argue with the person. I just politely interpret what has been said to the professional then it's up to them to sort things out.

How do you maintain focus and switch from one interpreting job to another? What helps you with your day to day interpreting tasks?

Shuttling from one on-site job to the next is not a big deal, as you have some time between. On the other hand, having over 20 phone jobs short and long with all different matters is quite an inconvenient task. I always take a 15-minute break every one or 2 hours, stay away from my desk and phone, and enjoy some fresh air in the garden. I am lucky to have a couple of wagtails visiting daily.

Is there a particular assignment that has remained with you as being particularly memorable or rewarding?

There are a number of assignments I am really happy with; it is hard to say which the most treasured one is.

When are you at your happiest?

When receiving a call from TIS with nice, positive feedback on the recent work I have completed. It is lovely!

How would your friends describe you in 3 words?

Honest, determined, sentimental.

What are you most thankful for?

I am thankful for having a chance to restart my life in Australia. Living and working in a free country like Australia is a godsend. And I can still do the job I dreamed of in my early years of life, which is absolutely wonderful. I also want to say thank you to TIS for keeping me on board for 27 years and counting, and to all my great friends and colleagues, who are always with me and support me during hard times.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

I have received two very good pieces of advice. The first was from Dagma Dixon, my former teacher: ‘In order to be a good interpreter, practise your skills and keep learning by following different programs on media to update your background knowledge’. The second one was from Minh Pham, another teacher: ‘To become a good interpreter, you must be a clear thinker. On top of that, honesty is vital. When you realise an error has occurred, you should let the parties know and correct it as soon as possible.’