NAUGHTY N.A.A.T.I Interpreter Exam- An Interpreter's Nightmare

R.I.P. Stuart Jay Raj’s NAATI Professional Level 3 Thai Interpreters Exam 19th of August, 2010

Moving to Australia recently was a tough call for me.  I love my life in Thailand and never would I have imagined a year ago that this time this year I would be living in Australia.  My kids didn’t speak English, and I figured if they don’t move to Australia for at least a couple of years now, they will never become native level speakers of English.

Aside from shooting a couple of episodes for my Thai TV Show in Brisbane and Coober Pedy last  year, I hadn’t been to Australia for over 10 years.  In Asia, I’m used to things happening fast, service to be done with a smile and got used to not having to fork out an arm and a leg for most things.

I had been a Dale Carnegie Facilitator / trainer for years and had run my own training outfit for many years working with some of the top multinationals, governments, UN Agencies and NGO’s operating in the region.  My travel schedule was sometimes up to 20 days a month and I was having a blast!

Enter Australia

One of the hardest things to get used to back in Australia was the pace of life here.  I admit – the natural surroundings, air quality and weather on the Gold Coast are all amazing.  The adrenalin and attitude that I was accustomed to was missing though.  That’s alright – I would just start doing what I had been doing across the region here in Australia and I’m sure everything would fall into place.

I have been a simultaneous interpreter for over 15 years and have been teaching simultaneous interpreting for around 10 years and am in the official Miss Universe Interpreters Alumni that sees us follow the pageant around the world each year.  I was keen to get into it and start evangelising language and interpreting here in Australia as I had done elsewhere.  How hard could that be?


Despite having so many years of experience in interpreting, before I could even get a job as a phone interpreter for a pittance per hour compared to the rates in Asia, I found out that NAATI was king.  No one will accept you unless you are NAATI (National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters) accredited.  No problem – I will show them my records from what I have done over the past 12 years, get references and I was sure I could get recognition for prior work.  Surely standing up on a stage with Jerry Springer interpreting for Miss Universe stands for something? … anything?  And what about … ?….

Not gonna happen!

NAATI would only recognise a certification from another recognised body around the world – and even if they did, you would only be ‘recognised’ and not ‘accredited’ with them.

So I booked in for my NAATI exams (NAATI Level 3 Professional Interpreter Level) – Indonesian and Thai.  Sounds easy enough right?  I then realised what the NAATI exam was like.  It would seem that the final call on the format and execution of these exams was done by someone who wasn’t linguistically inclined.  The exam takes about 90 minutes and is broken down as follows:

  • Section 1 - Consecutive Interpreting Dialogues (2 x 25 marks = 50 marks)
  • Social and Cultural Awareness Questions (10 marks)
  • Ethics of the Profession Questions (10 marks)
  • Sight Translation (2 x 10 marks = 20 marks)
  • Section 2 - Consecutive Interpreting of Passages (2 x 15 marks = 30 marks)

It’s a pretty intense exam, and part of the rules are that they will send you the topics for section 2, 2 weeks in advance so that you can study up on the topic, prepare your knowledge and vocab and be as prepared as possible for the exam.

What exactly do the examiners look for?

I had heard nightmare stories of people who had been interpreting for years and been perfectly fluent in both languages and failed because of little mistakes or bad choices of words – e.g. in Indonesian,  ‘Datang Bulan’ instead of ‘Haid’.  Hearing these kinds of stories freaked me out even more – what are they trying to assess here?  A real interpreting scenario is not like the ‘exam’ environment at all.  There is communication back and forth, cues and the ‘human’ factors really come into play.  Surely you couldn’t be failed because you used one word when the examiner preferred another word?

Consecutive Community Interpreting is not what I’m used to

My interpreting ‘gigs’ over the past 10 years have been primarily simultaneous booth interpreting.  That is, where I’m at a big conference or event sitting in a booth at the back of the auditorium.  As soon as the person on the stage opens their mouth, my mouth should be moving in tandem. My words are broadcast to headsets that delegates are wearing.  For me, this kind of interpreting is much easier.  Just as long as you understand what the speaker is saying, you can just turn your brain off and let your mouth do the work.

Rates for Interpreters

The standard rates for simultaneous interpreting in Thailand are USD$120-$250 per hour, minimum of 4 hours booked – hirer pays for breaks, transport, airfares, meals and accomodation (1 separate room King Size bed – no sharing!)  if out of the metropolitan area.  This is given that there are two interpreters in the booth.  I normally will refuse jobs where they want to hire 1 simultaneous interpreter.  In the few cases where you do need to interpret simultaneously by yourself, the rates are around USD$300 per hour.

You ain’t gonna get that round here BUBBA!

In Australia, it was quickly made known to me that the interpreting scene is VERY DIFFERENT.  Most of the interpreting is consecutive or telephone community interpreting.  That means court interpreting, mediations, police stations, welfare offices … not as sexy as Miss Universe, Anthony Robbins seminars or UN Conferences.  Not as well remunerated either!

After jumping through all the hoops to become an accredited NAATI interpreter, you stand to make oh… AUD$10++ per first 15 mins of phone interpreting and then around AUD$7++ for each 15 minute block after that.

If you go ‘on-site’, the standard is around AUD$67++ for the first hour and then you get LESS (around 50% LESS) for every hour after!  What kind of F!@#ed up system is that?

Well … I can’t change anything until I’m part of it … so red tape and stupid hoops… HERE I COME!

Exam Time

So I sat my Indonesian exam a couple of weeks back.  I prepared for weeks before it, going through as many Indonesian texts, dictionaries, podcasts, news feeds and blogs as I could on People Smuggling, court cases, welfare, politics … as many topics as I could that I thought might rear their head during the exam.

It takes NAATI up to 10 WEEKS to get the marks back.  This is an exam that costs for the initial exam + registration around $600++ whether you pas or fail and around $500++ per exam after that.  Do the math!… and it takes 10 weeks to mark it? … another big HMMMMMMM.

Thai Exam Debacle

I was given the topics for my Thai exam and I had studied up on them for the couple of weeks leading up to the exam.  I was tossing and turning  leading up to the exam… What if something crazy was thrown at me from left field?? What if I need to use the Royal ‘Ratchasap’ language… which I doubt any Thai person that I know could pull off … so many ‘what if’s’.

Finally, I sat the exam yesterday and coming out of it felt so good and so relieved that it was over.  I was happy with my performance and thought to myself “If they don’t pass me on that one, there’s gotta be something seriously wrong with the system”.

I smiled.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I celebrated.  I slept.

I woke up.  I received a call from the NAATI Brisbane office…..

“Just giving you a heads up – earlier this morning I was transferring your file to send to Canberra and there was a black-out.  It doesn’t look good.  I suspect you’re going to have to sit the exam again.  It gets worse… you will have to sit a brand-new exam.  Are you traveling anywhere soon?”

My heart fell to the ground.  Apart from the financial costs in getting up there and having to take the exam again, the psychological toll is also pretty stressful.

I received another call a few hours after:

“I think we can truly say that your file is R.I.P”.

So that was that.  I now have to sit the exam again – and because I’ll be traveling in a couple of weeks time, I think I’m going to have to waive the 2 week period that you would normally get to study the topics of section 2 and just bite the bullet and sit the stinking exam again.

Lessons Learned

  • How much different would this be if the person holding the exam was the marker – was proficient in the language and you could have a real interaction with them and they could gauge your language skills for themselves rather than creating a very unnatural environment stopping and starting a tape and sending the final MP3 file off to Canberra?
  • The whole system here needs an overhaul – and I see potential in raising the profile of language, interpreting and interpreting training and awareness in Australia.
  • If you want to get rich, you ain’t gonna do it interpreting in Australia!


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Written by

Stuart Jay Raj