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FEMA fires group for redundant Alaska Native translations

FEMA fires group for redundant Alaska Native translations

By Mark Thiessen The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — After tidal waves and high winds from the remnants of a rare storm near Alaska’s west coast in September caused widespread damage to homes, the U.S. government stepped in to help residents — in a big way. Alaska Native – Property damage repair.

Residents who opened Federal Emergency Management Agency paperwork expecting to find instructions on how to file for help in Alaska Native languages ​​such as Yup’ik or Inupiaq were instead reading bizarre phrases.

“Tomorrow he will go hunting very early, and will bring nothing,” read one passage. The translator randomly inserted the word “Alaska” in the middle of the sentence.

“Your husband is a polar bear, skinny,” said another.

Yet another was written entirely in Inuktitut, an indigenous language spoken in northern Canada as far away as Alaska.

FEMA fired the Californian company hired to translate the documents after the errors were discovered, but the incident was an ugly reminder to Alaska Natives of decades of suppression of their culture and languages.

Spokeswoman Jacqueline Rothenberg said FEMA immediately took responsibility for and corrected the translation errors, and the agency is working to make sure it doesn’t happen again. No one was denied assistance because of errors.

That’s not enough for an Alaska Native leader.

For Tara Sweeney, an Inupiaq who served as assistant secretary of Indian affairs in the US Department of the Interior during the Trump administration, it was another painful reminder of the moves to prevent Alaska Native children from speaking indigenous languages .

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“When my mother was bullied in school for speaking her language, like so many hundreds, thousands of other Alaska Natives, until the federal government distributes literature that says it is an Alaska Native language, I understand the spirit behind it. Can’t even describe the kind of symbolism,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney called for congressional oversight hearings to uncover how long and widely this practice has been used throughout the government.

“These government-contracted translators have definitely taken advantage of the system, and in my opinion they’ve had a profound impact on vulnerable communities,” said Sweeney, whose great-grandfather, Roy Ahmogk, invented more than half of the Inupiaq alphabet. century ago.

She stated that she intended to create the characters so that “our people can learn to read and write to transition from oral history to more concrete written history.”

US Representative Mary Peltola, who is Yupik and last year became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, said it was disappointing that FEMA missed the mark with these translations but was not called for a hearing.

“I am confident that FEMA will continue to make the necessary changes to be ready the next time it is called upon to serve our citizens,” the Democrat said.

FEMA fires group for redundant Alaska Native translations

FILE – Frederick Brower, center, helps to cut up bowhead whales caught by Inupiat subsistence hunters on a field near Barrow, Alaska, OC. 7, 2014. After tidal waves and high winds from the remnants of a rare typhoon along Alaska’s west coast in September caused widespread flooding damage to homes, the US government stepped in to help residents on largely Alaska Native property. damage repair. Residents who opened Federal Emergency Management Agency brochures expecting to find instructions on how to file for help in Alaska Native languages ​​such as Yup’ik or Inupiaq were reading nonsensical phrases instead. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)AP

Nearly 1,300 people have been approved for FEMA assistance following the havoc of Typhoon Merbok’s remnants as it travels about 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) north through the Bering Strait, potentially affecting 21,000 residents . Rothenberg said FEMA has paid about $6.5 million.

Preliminary estimates put the total damage at more than $28 million, but the total damage is likely to rise as more assessments are done following the spring thaw, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

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Zidek said the poorly translated documents, which didn’t cause delays or problems, were only a small part of efforts to help people register for FEMA assistance in person, online and over the phone.

Another factor is that English may not be the preferred language for some residents, but many are bilingual and may struggle to get through an English version, said Gary Holton, professor of Manoa linguistics and Alaska Native languages ​​in Hawaii. said Gary Holton, former director of the center. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Central Alaska Yupik is the largest of the Alaska Native languages, with approximately 10,000 speakers in 68 villages in southwest Alaska. Children in 17 of these villages learn Yupik as their first language. 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 documents were taken from Nikolai Vakhtin’s 2011 edition of “Yup’ik Eskimo Texts of 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 Ekaterina Rubtsova, who interviewed residents about their daily life and culture for a historical account.

The works were later translated and made available on the Language Center’s website, which Hulton used to investigate the origins of the mistranslated texts.

Holton noted that many of the languages ​​in the region are related but with differences, such as English being related to French or German but not the same language.

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Holton, who has nearly three decades of experience in Alaska Native language documentation and revitalization, searched the online archive and found “hit after hit,” words pulled out of the Russian work and randomly placed in the FEMA documents.

“They apparently just grabbed the words from the document and then put them in some random order and came up with something that looked like Yupik but didn’t make sense,” he said, calling the final product a “word salad.”

He said it was outrageous that an outside company appropriated the words people used 80 years ago to memorialize their lives.

“These are people’s grandparents and great-grandparents who are knowledge-keepers, elders, and their words they put down, expect people to learn, expect people to appreciate, just bastardized are,” Holton said.

KYUK Public Media in Bethel was the first to report the mistranslation.

“We make no excuses for inaccurate translations, and we are deeply sorry for any inconvenience caused to the local community,” said Carolyn Lee, CEO of Accent on Languages, the Berkeley, California-based company that produced the inaccurate documents. said in a statement. Statement.

He said the company will refund the $5,116 it received for the work to FEMA and will conduct an internal review to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Lee did not answer follow-up questions, including how the mistranslation happened.

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