AK - Lost in translation: FEMA sent ‘unintelligible’ disaster relief application information to Alaska Natives impacted by Typhoon Merbok
After Typhoon Merbok slammed into Alaska’s west coast in September 2022, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hired a California-based company to translate information into two Alaska Native languages about how to apply for disaster recovery assistance.
The translated documents were supposed to offer information on how to apply for financial assistance. On the Y-K Delta, at least half the population, about 10,000 people, learn Yugtun, or the Central Yup’ik dialect, before they learn English. Another 3,000 people speak Iñupiaq further north.
Julia Jimmie, a translator at KYUK, said that the Yugtun translations were incorrect. Other Indigenous language speakers also didn’t understand the translated documents. Two sources on Nelson Island agreed: they were not Central Yup’ik. Another source from Chevak said that it wasn’t Cup’ik. Siberian Yup’ik speakers also couldn’t make sense of the documents.
Tara Sweeney, the former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs under the Trump Administration, also said that the Iñupiaq translations were wrong; her great-grandfather helped develop the Iñupiaq alphabet.
“We don’t use characters like the letter ‘e’, or the way some of the words seem to be put together or structured,” Sweeney said.
Imagine if someone, you know, took all of your folktales and then interviewed your great-grandmother about her experiences growing up. And had all of this information recorded, and wrote it down, and then scrambled it and stuck it in various different ways and made kind of a collage out of it. It's offensive.
Gary Holton, linguist
To refer to the documents as translations would be wrong, said linguist Gary Holton.
“That is an amazing understatement,” Holton said after reviewing some of the documents. “The only thing you might gather from that is there are a couple of dates, but you wouldn't know what those dates are for. I would say the only useful bit of information in there might be if there's a reference to a website or something.”
Holton spent 20 years documenting Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Native Language Center. He said that whoever created the Yup’ik translations just lifted full phrases from a compilation of language and folklore from Far East Russia known as the Rubtsova texts. It was published in the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
According to Holton, in at least one of the documents where FEMA’s news release says “State News Desk,” the translated version reads, "when she said so, the dog ran farther off from the curtain.” In another section of the same document, what should be a translation of information about the Small Business Administration reads, "that one said that I should draw a line on the ice when he gets close."
“I mean imagine if someone, you know, took all of your folktales and then interviewed your great-grandmother about her experiences growing up. And had all of this information recorded, and wrote it down, and then scrambled it and stuck it in various different ways and made kind of a collage out of it,” Holton said. “It's offensive.”
Sweeney agreed. She said that the work is not only a waste of federal funding, it’s insulting to Alaska’s Indigenous people.
“There’s a lot of that historical trauma of being beaten in schools because they were speaking their Indigenous languages, which is why there’s a generation of us in Alaska that struggle with fluency,” Sweeney said.