Interpreting the Macassans: Language Exchange in Historical Encounters

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Date(s) - 12/09/2012
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Japanese Studies Centre Auditorium, Building 54 (next to the bus loop), Monash University, Clayton Campus


Monash Asia Seminars – CSEAS Seminar Series

Paul Thomas
School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics

Over a one hundred year period Europeans in Australia had intermittent contact with the Indonesian fishing fleets working in Australia’s northern waters. The fleets sailing from Makassar in south Sulawesi had commenced regular trade and fishing in Australia around 1780. During this time, they developed significant cultural ties with indigenous communities along the north coast which they named Marege. However, it was not until Matthew Flinders circumnavigation of the continent in 1803 that Europeans had their initial encounter with the fleets. The exchange of knowledge and impressions led to considerations of the potentiality of the relationship but this was dependent on the negotiation of differences in language and culture. Emerging from this need were capable individuals who could negotiate a language that was sufficiently familiar to both parties that a meaningful exchange could take place. In the case of the Europeans and the fishers, this quickly centred on varieties of Malay. This seminar focuses on the lives of three Malay interpreters who assumed the role of cultural intermediaries between Europeans and Indonesians on the north coast of Australia in three distinct historical episodes of the contact. While little material evidence survives of the linguistic peculiarities of the exchange, the fundamental questions of how Europeans initiated the communication, the motivation behind the exchanges, the influence of the languages chosen for the discourse, and the agency of the interpreters is examined within the context of the interpreters’ biographies and Australia’s relations with the archipelago at the time.

Paul Thomas is the coordinator of Indonesian Studies and a lecturer in Translation Studies in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. His primary research interest is in the historical and cultural role of translation with specific reference to Australia and Southeast Asia.

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