As freelance translators of the Translation Service, you all work for a government agency. Our collaboration may be more or less intensive, depending on your language combination and our needs. But what does it actually mean – to be translating for government? Is it any different to working for a private translation company or private clients?

I started working at the Translation Service last October after spending four years as an in-house translator and head of department within a translation company. Working for the public sector is different to working for private companies in a variety of ways: the clients are different; the types of translations are different, although there is some overlap; the purpose of the translator’s work is different.

The Department of Internal Affairs’ raison d’être, and by way of consequence, that of the Translation Service, is to ‘connect people, communities and government’. In contrast to a private company, which understandably seeks commercial benefits, the logic of public service is paramount to the Translation Service’s operations and is reflected, among other things, in its mission to cover all language communities present in New Zealand, which are deemed unprofitable by the private sector. In other words, if a member of the public or a government agency requires a translation from or into a language of low diffusion or a language that is for whatever reason more difficult to source, we will endeavour to meet that client’s needs. Providing high quality translations in those languages can be a challenge, but one that we are ready to take on.

Unsurprisingly, central and local government agencies call upon our services when they wish to communicate with the increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse population of New Zealand. Providing high quality translations is essential, as they reflect on the perception that our communities have of the NZ government. We also translate or proof material to be used overseas – international conventions and treaties, information etc. These translations matter too, as they reflect on the image of New Zealand abroad.

The bulk of our translations – about a third of our work – is however directly related to citizenship or immigration applications. This includes selective translations of birth details, marriage certificates, adoption documents etc., and full translations of love letters, testimonies, court decisions, medical reports and so on. As these translated documents play a significant role in the outcome of their applications, clients care very deeply about them and will ask for amendments to be made or explanations to be given if they are unhappy with the translation(s) they receive. This, of course, has its own drawbacks, as it can lead to heated debates with conflicting ideas about what a translation should be.

But our work does matter, and that in itself is very rewarding. In no way am I saying that translating for private companies does not convey the same sense of satisfaction – they sometimes do: I remember translating material for NGOs operating in Africa, and immigration papers for private clients for instance. However, I also remember enormous localisation projects with chunks of text that had no meaning, and hundreds of questions that remained unanswered as the client couldn’t care less.

How do you feel about working for the Translation Service? Do you see a difference compared to your other clients? Leave a comment to let us know.