ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — After tidal waves and high winds from the remnants of a rare typhoon caused extensive damage to homes along Alaska’s west coast in September, the U.S. government stepped in to help residents – mostly Alaskan Natives – repair homes help property damage.
Residents who opened the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s paperwork, expecting to find instructions on how to apply for help in native Alaskan languages like Yup’ik or Inupiaq, instead read bizarre phrases.
“Tomorrow he will go hunting very early and (bring) nothing,” says one passage. The translator randomly added the word “Alaska” mid-sentence.
“Your husband is a polar bear, skinny,” said another.
Another was written entirely in Inuktitut, an indigenous language spoken in northern Canada, far from Alaska.
FEMA fired the California company tasked with translating the documents as soon as the errors became known, but the incident served as an ugly reminder to Alaska Natives of the decades-old oppression of their culture and language.
FEMA immediately took responsibility for the translation errors and corrected them, and the agency is working to ensure it doesn’t happen again, spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg said. No one was denied help because of the bugs.
That’s not good enough for an Alaskan Native leader.
For Tara Sweeney, an Inupiaq who served as Assistant Secretary for Native American Affairs at the US Department of the Interior during the Trump administration, it was another painful reminder of steps being taken to prevent Alaska Native children from speaking Indigenous languages speak.
“When my mother was beaten for speaking her language in school, as did so many hundreds of thousands of Alaskan Natives, to then get the federal government to distribute literature that represented it as an Alaskan Native language, I can not even the emotion behind it describes any kind of symbolism,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney called for a congressional oversight hearing to uncover how long and widespread the practice had been in use across government.
“These government-contracted translators certainly took advantage of the system, and I think they had a profound impact on vulnerable communities,” said Sweeney, whose great-grandfather, Roy Ahmaogak, invented the Inupiaq alphabet more than half a century ago . A century ago.
She said his intention is to create the characters so that “our people will learn to read and write to move from an oral story to a more tangible written story.”
US Rep. 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 those translations but didn’t call for hearings.
“I am confident that FEMA will continue to make the necessary changes to be ready when next called upon to serve our citizens,” the Democrat said.
About 1,300 people were approved for FEMA assistance after the remnants of Typhoon Merbok wreaked havoc as it swept through the Bering Strait about 1,000 miles north, potentially affecting 21,000 residents. FEMA has disbursed about $6.5 million, Rothenberg said.
Preliminary estimates put the total damage at just over $28 million, but the total damage is likely to rise as more assessment work is conducted following the spring thaw, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The poorly translated documents, which caused no delays or problems, are just a small part of efforts to help people register for FEMA assistance in person, online and by phone, Zidek said.
Another factor is that while English isn’t the language of choice for some residents, many are bilingual and can struggle through an English version, said Gary Holton, a linguistics professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and former director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Central Alaskan Yup’ik is the largest of the Alaskan Native languages with approximately 10,000 speakers in 68 villages in Southwest Alaska. In 17 of these villages, children learn Yup’ik as their first language. According to the Language Center, there are about 3,000 Inupiaq speakers in northern Alaska.
It appears that the words and phrases used in the translated documents are from Nikolai Vakhtin’s 2011 edition of “Yupik Eskimo Texts from the 1940s,” said John DiCandeloro, the Language Center’s archivist.
The book is the written record of field notes collected in Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula across the Bering Strait from Alaska in the 1940’s by Ekaterina Rubtsova interviewing residents for a historical account of their daily life and culture.
The works were later translated and made available on the Language Center’s website, which Holton used to investigate the provenance of the mistranslated texts.
Many of the languages from the region are related but with differences, just as English is related to French or German but not the same language, Holton said.
Holton, who has about three decades of experience documenting and revitalizing the native Alaskan language, searched the online archive and found “hit after hit,” words pulled directly from the Russian work and randomly inserted into FEMA documents.
“They clearly just took the words from the document and then just put them in a random order and gave something that looked like Yup’ik but didn’t make any sense,” he said, calling the end product a “word salad.”
He said it was offensive that an outside company took the words people used to commemorate their lives 80 years ago.
“These are the grandparents and great-grandparents of people who keep knowledge, who are elders, and their words that they write down, expecting people to learn from them, people cherishing, just got corrupted,” Holton said.
KYUK Public Media at Bethel was the first to report the mistranslations.
“We do not apologize for any incorrect translations and deeply regret any inconvenience this has caused the local community,” said Caroline Lee, CEO of Accent on Languages, the Berkeley, California-based company that created the mistranslated documents in a statement .
She said the company will reimburse FEMA for the $5,116 it received for the work and will conduct an internal review to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Lee did not respond to follow-up questions, including how the incorrect translations came about.
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