It all started when Ryan told his Aboriginal Culture Advisor at Macquarie University that he had been studying Mandarin for 7 years, since he was in Year 7. It was an auspicious moment. An Acknowledgement of Country had always kicked-off the Chinese Cultural Festival, but it was usually delivered by an Aboriginal person alongside a translator. Ryan Whittard embodied both. He was the perfect cross-cultural ambassador for the job.
Ryan told NITV he was thrilled when he was asked to take part in the festival: “They were happy to take me on board, and for me it was a great opportunity to practise my Chinese and connect with my Indigenous heritage. I was excited, honoured and humbled to be given the chance. It was a priceless experience.
“I received lots of compliments from members of the audience. I think a few people were surprised. My brother told me some Chinese people in the audience were in awe that I was speaking their language.”
After Ryan’s speech, the Chinese Deputy Consul-General, Xuejun Tong, told the audience at the festival that in all his time in diplomatic roles in Australia, it was the first time he had witnessed the Acknowledgement of Country in Mandarin.
The Mayor of Ryde, Jerome Laxale, praised Ryan on Facebook.
But big opportunities come hand in hand with great responsibility. Ryan knew he and his Chinese teacher, Dr Hui Ling Xu, had to get the translation right.
Ryan told NITV: “First I consulted and confirmed what I should include in the Acknowledgement. I had to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians, speak according to their culture and customs and obviously respect their Elders, and any other Aboriginal people that were present on the night.
“We worked really hard to try to encapsulate the significance of the Acknowledgement. When translating a passage of such cultural importance, sometimes it’s difficult to capture the overall meaning and depth.”
Dr Hui Ling Xu, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Macquarie University, helped Ryan choose his words carefully. She believes every word in every language holds nuances and hidden meanings, and given the significance of the speech, they didn’t want anything to get lost in translation.
Dr Hui Ling Xu told NITV: “I believe this exercise of helping Ryan highlights the relationship between language and culture, as it is not a word to word or phrase to phrase translation. Ryan explained the cultural meanings of the words to me, and I used my linguistic knowledge. Together we came up with the first version, which I am sure can be perfected in the future.”
Dr Hui Ling Xu explains that the most difficult words or concepts to translate were “Elders, Nation and Clan”. She said it was hard to express the specific meaning and the importance that these words hold in an Aboriginal cultural context, but she thinks they did a good job in the end.
She told NITV: “I’m not sure if the translation is 100% accurate, but I’m happy and feel proud. It was fantastic to be able to use a different language to express respect to the Nation and the Elders.
“The audience had an overwhelming reaction. They were full of praise, and this was quite significant for Ryan, for the event, for the university and for the festival.”
In spite of the differences in culture and language, Ryan and Dr Hui Ling Xu both discovered similarities between Indigenous and Chinese culture while translating the Acknowledgement to Country. Dr Hui Ling Xu admires how “Aboriginal and Chinese cultures both revere and show deep respect to the Elders, the ancestors, our forbearers.” For Ryan, the link between both cultures lies in their richness, depth and complexity.