ANCHORAGE, Ala. (AP) — After tidal waves and strong winds from the remnants of a rare typhoon caused widespread damage to homes along Alaska’s west coast in September, the U.S. government stepped in to help residents — mostly Alaska Natives — repair property damage.
Residents who opened Federal Emergency Management Agency papers expecting to find instructions on how to apply for help in Alaska Native languages such as Yup’ik or Inupiaq read bizarre phrases.
“He will go hunting very early to-morrow and (bring) nothing,” read one passage. The translator accidentally added the word “Alaska” in the middle of the sentence.
“Your husband is a polar bear, skinny,” said another.
Another was written entirely in Inuktitut, an aboriginal language spoken in northern Canada, far from Alaska.
FEMA fired the California company hired to translate the documents as soon as the errors were known, but the incident was an ugly reminder for Alaska Natives of decades of suppression of their culture and languages.
FEMA immediately took responsibility for the translation errors and corrected them, and the agency is working to make sure it doesn’t happen again, spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg said. No one was denied help because of errors.
That’s not good enough for one Alaska Native leader.
For Tara Sweeney, an Inupiaq who served as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior under the Trump administration, it was another painful reminder of the steps taken to keep Alaska 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, and then the federal government distributed literature representing that it was an Alaska Native language, I can’t even begin to describe the emotion behind that. some kind of symbolism,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney called for a congressional oversight hearing to find out how long and how widespread the practice has been in government.
“These government 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 more than half of the Inupiaq alphabet. century.
She said his intention was to create the characters so that “our people can learn to read and write, to move from oral history to a more tangible written history.”
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who is Yup’ik and became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress last year, said it was disappointing that FEMA missed the mark with the translations, but she did not request a hearing.
“I am confident that FEMA will continue to make the necessary changes to be ready the next time they are 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 traveled about 1,609 kilometers north through the Bering Strait, potentially affecting 21,000 residents. FEMA paid out about $6.5 million, Rothenberg said.
Preliminary estimates put the total damage at just over $28 million, but the total is likely to rise after more assessments are done after the spring thaw, said Jeremy Židek, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The mistranslated documents, which did not cause delays or problems, were a small part of efforts to help people register for FEMA assistance in person, online and by phone, Židek said.
Another factor is that while English may not be the preferred language for some residents, many are bilingual and may struggle with the English version, said Gary Holton, a linguistics professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and former director of the Alaska Native Language Center. University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Central Alaska Yup’ik is the largest of the Alaska Native languages, with about 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 throughout northern Alaska, according to the language center.
The words and phrases used in the translated documents appear to have been taken from Nikolai Vakhtin’s 2011 edition of “Yupik Eskymo Texts from the 1940s,” said John DiCandeloro, the language center’s archivist.
The book is a written record of field notes collected on Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula across the Bering Strait from Alaska in the 1940s by Yekaterina Rubtsov, who interviewed residents about their daily lives and culture for historical description.
The works were later translated and made available on the language center’s website, which Holton used to investigate the origins of the mistranslated texts.
Many languages from the area 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 Alaska Native language, searched the online archive and found “intervention after intervention,” words pulled directly from the Russian work and randomly placed in FEMA documents.
“Apparently they just took the words from the document and then put them in some random order and gave something that looked like Yup’ik, but it didn’t make sense,” he said, calling the end product “a word salad.”
He said it was offensive that a foreign company had appropriated words that people used 80 years ago to commemorate their lives.
“It’s people’s grandparents and great-grandparents who are the bearers of knowledge, they’re older, and their words that they put aside, they expect people to learn from them, they expect people to appreciate them, it’s just been bastardized,” Holton said.
KYUK Public Media in Bethel first reported the mistranslations.
“We do not apologize for the mistranslations 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 produced the mistranslated documents. claim.
She said the company will repay FEMA the $5,116 it received for the work and conduct an internal review to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Lee did not respond to follow-up questions, including how the mistranslations occurred.
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