Indigenous translation of UN Declaration of Human Rights

22 October 2015

Many were surprised at the fact that Aboriginal people are equal to all other people, because the fact is that is not the way they are treated.

A researcher at The Australian National University (ANU) has translated the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) into the central-Australian language of Pintupi-Luritja, making it the first time the world's most translated document has been made available in an Aboriginal language.

The translation of the document's 30 articles and preamble took more than two years and involved working closely with Pintupi-Luritja translators and stakeholder groups.

Project Leader and social anthropologist Dr Sarah Holcombe said the process of translating the document was revealing.

"Very few Anangu people (Pintupi-Luritja speakers) had heard of universal human rights," Dr Holcombe said.

"Many were surprised at the fact that Aboriginal people are equal to all other people, because the fact is that is not the way they are treated.

"The articles about the rule of law, for example that all should be innocent until proven guilty and that the law should be treating all people equally, are apocryphal when applied to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory."

The UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 as the first global expression of human rights. It has been translated into more than 460 languages.

Dr Holcombe said the UDHR was developed following the Second World War and was foundational to western law and culture.

"The mass atrocities after the Second World War horrified the world and there was wide recognition that there needed to be fundamental standards of human dignity," she said.

"These standards are now in international law. They include the right to equality, freedom of religion, free speech, the right to vote and so on.

"Though we are the only western democratic country without a national bill or charter of rights, we are a signatory to the major international conventions that enshrine these rights.

"All these fundamental elements of our life that we all take for granted, are embedded in this document. It forms part of a contract of citizenship".

"Yet, Aboriginal people, in remote areas especially, have not been widely exposed to this contract, as it exists in the mainstream. They don't take rights for granted."

Dr Holcombe said she hoped the new translation would help spread awareness of human rights in Indigenous Australia and begin a conversation in language.

"Anangu have a right to know this document exists. I want it to offer people possibilities. It was meant to be an educational document after all," she said.

The project team working with Dr Holcombe were Lance Macdonald and Sheila Joyce Dixon (of Papunya) and linguist Ken Hansen.