Lost In Translation In The Inner City

Lost in translation in the inner city

The Sydney Morning Herald
April 6, 2007

One of the great melting pots in Sydney, Marrickville is all mixed up over the languages used on its shop signs, writes Damien Murphy.

THE advertisement in the window of the Marrickville Road branch of the Commonwealth Bank reads: “We speak your language. Nick Siafrakis. Your friend in lending.” The last words are repeated in Greek.

Marrickville, one of Sydney's great melting pots, is lost in translation with some seemingly intent on doing a reverse multicultural with a twist over the sign languages shopkeepers use to advertise their wares.

Following a controversial vote last November, Marrickville Council now officially encourages the use of English translations on signs. Stiff opposition to a proposal to force shop owners to provide English translations resulted in a council backdown.

The move came despite no complaints from customers about the sign language. In fact, Marrickville's shops, like the Commonwealth Bank, are littered with dual-language signs.

In fact, when the two councillors pushing the issue – which included the Mayor, Morris Hanna – sent the media to the only place in town with only Vietnamese on its signs, the bewildered video shop proprietor wondered what had hit him and quickly put up an English explanation of his businesses.

“All we're doing is encouraging unity within the community,” said Victor Macri, a self-styled “commonsense independent councillor” and Marrickville Road hair salon owner.

He blamed Greens councillors for stirring the issue and using it as a stick to thump the local Labor state MP, Carmel Tebbutt, in the lead-up to the March 24 election.

But the council bickering attracted outside interest and Marrickville's problems with sign language topped the tower of babel known as talkback radio.

Redneck callers thought forcing Asian shopkeepers to explain their wares in English was the Australian way, bleeding hearts feared the return of White Australia, while others wondered why anyone in Marrickville would bother opening the door to the possibility of being accused of xenophobia.

Indeed, Marrickville is one of the first of Sydney's municipalities to prosper from multiculturalism. It has been a sort of staging point for immigrants until the great Australian suburbia beckons. Italians and Greeks came in the decades after World War II, the Vietnamese moved in from the late 1970s and now Africans, Pacific Islanders and Indonesians are arriving.

Until the postwar immigration, the area had been white. From 1789 until the 1920s, Marrickville grew from a sparsely settled rural area into a densely populated industrial municipality. Its surrounding suburbs include Enmore, Tempe, Dulwich Hill and Petersham.

It has sheltered and nurtured a number of famous Australians, including the jilted Eliza Emily Donnithorn (reputed to be the model for Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations). Henry Lawson's mother Louisa lived her last years in a stone cottage in Renwick Street, and her writer son often visited. The footballer and infamous policeman Frank “Bumper” Farrell was a local hero as were swimmers Annette Kellerman, Fanny Durack and Kevin Berry. And, of course, there was the “Marrickville Mauler”, boxer Jeff Fenech, who introduced his suburb to the world when he began winning world titles in 1985.

Fenech, like many, is the son of immigrants. According to the 2001 census, Marrickville has the 14th highest proportion of overseas-born residents among Australia's local government areas. About 39 per cent of the suburb's residents were born overseas, compared with Sydney's average of 31 per cent.

Of the 28,300 people citing foreign birthplaces, the most came from Vietnam, with some 3000 people, followed by Greece (2900), Britain (2900) and New Zealand (2100).

Relatively cheap accommodation has been a key factor in Marrickville's evolution into a multicultural suburb.

As the population began to age and die out as factories and jobs moved west in the decades after the war, the arrival of immigrants and their exotic mix of cultures and food began to attract educated middle-class families and singletons who could not afford Newtown or Balmain.

The median auction price for Marrickville houses last year was $583,000. Units valued at $2 million plus on Livingstone Road overlooking the Cooks River sold recently, but they were the exception. Now areas such as “The Warren” – a 19th century subdivision by prominent landowner Thomas Holt on high land near the river – are sought after by young professional families.

Part of the attraction for many newcomers is Marrickville's mix of cultures and the tolerance that goes with living with differences.

Although the councillors who want compulsory English shop signs seem to be flying in the face of Marrickville's vaunted multiculturalism, they are unlikely to lose the argument. A questionnaire on social attitudes by the Australian National University last year found 92 per cent of the 4270 adults interviewed believed that to be “truly Australian” it was “fairly important” that you “speak English”.

The signs became an issue last June when Mr Hanna (an independent who owns a men's clothing shop in Marrickville Road) asked council officers to report on the extent shopfronts could be covered with advertisements. They recommended altering a development control plan, and pointed to the fact other councils had dual-language guidelines.

In the end, Mr Hanna and Victor Macri won the day with the support of two Labor councillors.

After the issue was highlighted in the Herald, the Greens councillor Fiona Byrne, a candidate for Marrickville in the state election, called on the local MP Ms Tebbutt to urge her Labor colleagues to reject the plan.

Mr Macri has surveyed traders, who he said were 100 per cent behind dual-language signs. But many seem unimpressed.

“Frankly,” said a food shop proprietor, Noha Drar, “I'd have thought there were more important issues for councillors to address rather than hit each other with hot air.”

General practitioner Van Hao Vu said the issue had received plenty of coverage in the ethnic press, including the front page of the Vietnamese language newspaper Sunrise Daily.

“Some council representative came and told us it was to make us more welcoming. But all shopkeepers know how to make money without such council help. Maybe Asian community retailers will start their own Chamber of Commerce to stop being pushed around. This is silly. It's not what makes Marrickville special.”