Loving our neighbours through language learning

I first met Purwanto when he helped me translate an interview I was conducting with a minister who had just moved to Australia from Indonesia. He helped me out a lot and the interview may not have  been possible without him. I quickly learnt that he’s helped many people in his time, from all walks of life in his role as an interpreter and translator.

Dr Purwanto Danusugondo grew up in Java, Indonesia and as a child learnt Javanese, Dutch – which his parents spoke in the home – and Indonesian. English is his fourth language, but he speaks a total of seven languages in all.

Having now travelled and studied all over the world, Purwanto didn’t actually leave Java until after completing his first degree, in 1963, when he was offered a job in Melbourne working for the ABC’s Radio  Australia program, English for You. Since then, he has also studied in Hawaii – where he completed a PhD in German – Texas and Indiana.

As a translator, Purwanto has worked with large companies including mining and insurance companies, as well as helping people in a range of ways within the local community, usually translating English  to Indonesian or vice versa.

“I’ve done court interpreting,” he said. “That’s practically every week.

“And I’ve also done interpreting in  hospitals and prisons. Quite a few Indonesians are incarcerated here mostly through illegal fishing and also, under Mr Tony Abbotts ‘Stop the Boats’, bringing in asylum  seekers.”

Purwanto regularly visits detention centres in Darwin and on Christmas Island, to help translate for asylum seekers. He has visited the Christmas Island Detention Centre around 35 times.

“Each deployment originally started as two weeks, but in the last few years it’s been eight week stints each time,” Purwanto said. “I’m also accredited for Malay and I’ve been helping Burmese refugees who have spent some time in Malaysia, so they speak Malay.”

In the past, he has translated for Indonesian delegates at conferences, including helping them do media interviews which requires him to be simultaneously translating while the person is talking. And at his  church, the GKI Perth Uniting Church (Indonesian) Purwanto was responsible for setting up a translating corner so that non-Indonesian speakers can listen in on the service in English. He has since trained  other members of the congregation to be able to also help out with simultaneous translating.

Purwanto originally wanted to be a medical doctor, but that plan didn’t work out. Nevertheless, Purwanto said that he is blessed to be able to go on this journey which God has made for him.

“I believe that  was God’s way of making use of me as his instrument,” he said.

It has also been a path that has forced him to learn all sorts of things which would normally be outside of his realm.

“Being an interpreter, I have to learn about the law. I’m blessed because I learn so much  from other fields of my endeavour apart from my own. I learn a lot more by being an interpreter and translator,” Purwanto said. “When you are interpreting or translating, sometimes you are faced with areas that have very little to do with your own life.”

Not knowing the local language can make many simple things quite complicated, and Purwanto said that being a translator is his best way of showing love to his neighbour.

“I find this is like my contribution to being a member of the community and being a Christian. I feel privileged to be able to help and it’s very rewarding because it gives me an opportunity to say thanks to  the Lord.”

Many people would think it takes a  pretty special kind of person to be able to learn so many languages – surely a normal brain can’t handle that much information. Purwanto believes that anyone can learn  multiple languages, you just have to apply yourself.

“Everybody is pretty good at picking up languages, but they don’t put their mind to it,” Purwanto said. “We are born with the propensity of requiring languages. God never intended us to only speak one  language. The only problem is that many of us are either too busy, too shy oreasily embarrassed.

“There are two necessary requirements to succeed in language learning, whether your first language – your mother tongue – or any other language: motivation and application.

“If you have those two then you’re bound to succeed.”

Heather Dowling

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