Fema fires translator for botching Alaska Native languages

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA: After tidal surges and high winds from the remnants of a rare typhoon caused extensive damage to homes along Alaska’s west coast in September, the United States government is stepped in to help residents—mostly Alaska Natives—repair property damage.
Residents who opened Federal Emergency Management Agency documents expecting to find instructions on how to seek help in Alaska Native languages ​​like Yup’ik or Inupiaq read instead of weird sentences.
“Tomorrow he will go hunting very early and bring nothing,” reads one passage. The translator randomly added the word “Alaska” in the middle of the sentence.
“Your husband is a skinny polar bear,” said another.
Yet another was written entirely in Inuktitut, an indigenous language spoken in northern Canada, far from Alaska.
Fema fired the California company hired to translate the documents after the errors became known, but the incident was a nasty reminder for Alaska Natives of the suppression of their culture and languages ​​for decades .
Fema immediately took responsibility for the translation errors and corrected them, and the agency is working to ensure this doesn’t happen again, spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg said. No one was denied help because of the errors.
That’s not good enough for an Alaska Native leader.
For Tara Sweeneyan Inupiaq who served as Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in the United States Department of the Interior during the Asset administration, it was another painful reminder of the steps taken to prevent Alaskan Native children from speaking Native languages.
“When my mother was beaten for speaking her language in school, like so many hundreds, thousands of Alaska Natives, only to have the feds hand out literature that said it was ‘an Alaskan native language, I can’t even describe the emotion behind it, some kind of symbolism,’ Sweeney said.
Sweeney called for a congressional oversight hearing to find out how long and how long this practice has been prevalent across government.
“These government contract translators certainly took advantage of the system, and they had a profound impact, in my view, on vulnerable communities,” said Sweeney, whose great-grandfather, Roy Ahmaogak, invented the Inupiaq alphabet over half a century ago.
She said her intention was to create the characters so that “our people learn to read and write to move from an oral history to a more tangible written history”.
U.S. Representative Mary Peltola, who is Yup’ik and became the first Alaskan native elected to Congress last year, said it was disappointing that FEMA missed the mark with these translations but did not. not called for hearings.
“I am confident that FEMA will continue to make the changes necessary to be ready the next time it is called upon to serve our citizens,” the Democrat said.
About 1,300 people have been approved for Fema assistance after the remnants of Typhoon Merbok wreaked havoc as it traveled about 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) north through the Bering Strait, potentially affecting 21,000 inhabitants. FEMA contributed about $6.5 million, Rothenberg said.
Preliminary estimates put the overall damage at just over $28 million, but the total is expected to rise after assessment work is completed after the spring thaw, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security and of Alaska Emergency Management.
The mistranslated documents, which did not create delays or problems, were only a small part of the effort to help people register for FEMA assistance in person, online and by phone, Zidek said.
Another factor is that while English may not be some residents’ preferred language, many are bilingual and may struggle with an English version, said University of Washington linguistics professor Gary Holton. ‘Hawaii in Manoa and former director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Central Alaskan Yup’ik is the largest of Alaska’s native languages, with approximately 10,000 speakers in 68 villages in southwest Alaska. Children learn Yup’ik as their first language in 17 of these villages. There are about 3,000 Inupiaq speakers in northern Alaska, according to the language center.
It appears that the words and phrases used in the translated materials are taken from Nikolai Vakhtin’s 2011 edition of “1940s Yupik Eskimo Texts,” said John DiCandeloro, archivist at the language center.
The book is the written account of field notes collected on Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula across the Bering Strait from Alaska in the 1940s by Ekaterina Rubtsovawho interviewed locals about their daily life and culture for a historical account.
The works were then translated and made available on the language center’s website, which Holton used to investigate the origin of the mistranslated texts.
Many of the region’s languages ​​are related but with differences, just as English is related to French or German but is not the same language, Holton said.
Holton, who has about three decades of experience documenting and revitalizing Alaskan Native languages, scoured online archives and found “hit after hit”, words ripped straight from the Russian work and placed at random. in FEMA documents.
“They clearly grabbed the words from the document, then put them in random order and came up with something that sounded like Yup’ik but made no sense,” he said, calling the final product a “word salad”.
He said it was offensive for an outside company to appropriate the words people used 80 years ago to commemorate their lives.
“It’s the grandparents and great-grandparents of the people who are the keepers of knowledge, who are elders, and their words that they wrote down, expecting people to learn, expecting to what people appreciate, just got trampled on,” Holton said.
KYUK Public Media at Bethel first reported the translation errors.
“We do not condone the mistranslations and deeply regret any inconvenience this has caused the local community,” said Caroline Lee, CEO of Accent on Languages, the Berkeley, Calif.-based company that produced the poorly translated documents. statement.
She said the company would refund Fema the $5,116 it received for the work and would conduct an internal review to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Lee did not respond to follow-up questions, including how the mistranslations occurred.

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