Lecturer Profile: Paul Thomas

Coordinator of the Indonesian Program in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics

PhD – enrolled – Translation Studies, Monash University
Master of Arts, Applied Linguistics, Melbourne University
Bachelor of Education, Adelaide University
Associate Diploma Applied Science, University of South Australia
NAATI Professional Level Translator (Indonesian-English)

How long have you been at Monash and what brought you here?

Ooh, that’s embarrassing! I think 1993 would have been around the first year that I came here. I was teaching with the Australian Defence Forces and I was offered the opportunity to teach this broader range of students, and also the opportunity to do research. Before my work with the Defence Forces I was with the University of South Australia; a lot of the work I was doing there was in curriculum design and acquisition of language. Before that I worked in Singapore where I designed and taught language programs… before that Indonesia.

What is your PhD focused on?

My PhD is really a series of papers on the history of communication between Australia and Indonesia and the Malay world. It starts from the 18th century and goes through to the 21st. At the centre of that, is that I’m looking at it from a translation perspective.

You have particular research interests in the cultural and political role of translation in journalism. Could you talk a little about this?

Do we listen to Indonesian songs, do we watch Indonesian films? No and no. So where is our point of contact with Indonesia? It’s through journalism and learning Indonesian in schools. We can get Indonesian views through journalism, but it’s going to have to be translated if we really want to get those views. We can do it, Indonesians can do it, but with every step away from the source that news can get distorted. We need to look at what’s happening in that news; the press relationship with Indonesia is fascinating. We need journalists who are multilingual.

Is there something in particular that draws you to languages?

It’s the adventure of another culture, and that there are these parallel universes – that’s how I see it. I wasn’t that intrigued by the linguistic aspects [of languages]; I was interested in communication and the history between cultures, and the way cultures interact with each other.

Whether you learn a language or not is a strange question for Australians. It’s quite unique here, because it’s not something that is questioned anywhere else in the world. For some reason here in Australia we feel that we have to make the decision whether we need to study languages or not – it’s a cultural trait which all Australians seem to have. It’s an important attribute that people should have because it’s the only way that we can communicate with the cultures around us.

Are there particular benefits to be gained from studying Indonesian?

I think in Australia, it helps us define who we are. We can only define ourselves from who we aren’t, and the waters that surround us are important in that way. There’s a huge benefit then. Without that language we’re locked out. We can only speak to relatively wealthy, educated city Indonesians, urban Indonesians [who speak English]. And that’s a bit of a problem.

Could language proficiency have further ramifications for diplomatic relations?

When we learn a language we learn about that culture and that nation. And Australians, whether they want to or not, have to make decisions about our relationship with Indonesia. We have to make political decisions. If we remain ignorant about this country, which we have a very complex relationship with, we’re not ready to make those decisions.

What has been the highlight of your academic career so far?

I think part of it was the design of the Indonesian curriculum; I’d never done such a complete course, going over 3 years at a university level. Integrating new technology into that curriculum… that would be the highlight from the teaching point of view. In terms of research, probably just recently getting this series of papers on the history of communication published– I just completed a publication on an interpreter who worked in Australia in the 19th century. We don’t think of Australia as a multilingual during this period of time; he was a Malay interpreter and this was the first attempt Australia made to interact with Indonesians or Malay as we call them. I liked those personal stories and being able to tell those stories, and a lot of people wanted to know about them.

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