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Voting rights lawsuit says state ballot translations were wrong

Richard Mauer

If you think it’s hard to understand ballot measures when they’re written in English, consider the translations into Yup’ik prepared by the Alaska Division of Elections.

Walkie Charles, an assistant professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spent 30 minutes trying to decipher a translated 2010 ballot measure proposing a law to combat corruption. He gave up on the version given to Yup’ik voters by the state and went to the original English to figure it out.

“I have spoken Yup’ik my entire life, I teach it, write papers about it, and speak it almost daily. I should be able to review this ballot and understand it with ease. In fact, I had to ask for a copy of the English version to compare and try to discern the meaning of it,” Charles wrote in a report.

Charles is expected to be a key witness in the U.S. Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought last July by four Native villages and two western Alaska elders against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state’s top election official, and three members of the Elections Division he supervises. Because it involves elections, the case has been moving quickly for a civil matter and is scheduled for trial June 23 in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

Charles, an expert for the Native plaintiffs, said the translation of another question on the 2010 ballot, an initiative on abortion, was even worse. An English reader of reasonable proficiency would have seen that the question asks whether a doctor should be required to notify a parent before performing an abortion on the parent’s minor child. 

But in Yup’ik?

“The ballot measure was asking about parental permission to get pregnant, not parental permission to have an abortion,” Charles said. “Anyone who used this sample ballot received different information than English speaking voters and voted on something totally different than other English-reading voters in the rest of the State.”

The Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in speakers in the lawsuit say the state is violating the language provisions of the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide all election materials in their Native languages.

Treadwell and the Elections Division say the state has a robust Native language program involving village outreach, bilingual poll workers, training and translated ballots. The program may not be perfect, but the law doesn’t demand perfection, they said in court filings defending their position -- only that “all reasonable steps” be taken to assure that voters with limited English skills are “effectively informed of, and participate effectively in, voting-connected activities.”

Natalie Landreth, lead attorney in the case with the Native American Rights Fund, agreed that the state need not be perfect -- but its language access program is also not effective, she said.

“This (court) case is for older people, 50-something and above, from an era where there wasn’t schools in their villages,” Landreth said.

If the state is providing written material in English, the law requires a translated Yup’ik version as well, she said.

“It doesn’t mean you can try pretty hard -- you have to actually do it,” Landreth said.

The villages and elders are seeking a court order forcing the Division of Elections to provide all material in the Native languages and their dialects, and directing the federal government to monitor compliance with observers.

Gail Fenumiai, the director of the Division of Elections, declined to comment, citing the approaching trial date. She, Treadwell, and the other defendants are listed as likely witnesses. The trial would we be held as Treadwell pursues his campaign for U.S. Senate.

In court filings in the case, the state said it created a seven-member Yup’ik Translation Panel in 2009 to convert election material, including the 2010 ballots, into Yup’ik. It said the Native plaintiffs were not raising real issues in the case, but rather “pointing to isolated, irregular instances where the Division’s Yup’ik language assistance program has fallen short.”

Charles, the Native languages professor, said he found the Yup’ik material far off the mark. In a 12-page filing in the case, in which he’s expected to be an expert witness, he described the state’s work as word-for-word translations that failed to make sense. His descriptions of the Yup’ik documents were reminiscent of the poorly translated instructions on toys or electronics made in China or Japan.

“The result is very hard to read. The best way to describe it is Yup’ik legalese or ‘Yup’ified’ English,” Charles said. “This kind of language just does not really exist in Yup’ik, by which I mean people do not speak or write Yup’ik this way. The end result is that it is a struggle even for a Native speaker like me to read and understand this.”

Yup’ik only became a written language in the 19th Century, with the help of missionaries. The writing method was recast by academics in the 1960s, changing spellings, word formations and the use of letters. But Charles said many Yup’ik speakers can read it -- as long as the text isn’t overly complex.

“I suppose it could be compared to asking a fluent English speaker to read and understand a scientific textbook or court opinion filled with legal jargon,” Charles wrote.

In the case of the abortion ballot, the translated version had a single 33-letter Yup’ik word for the English phase, “so it could be appropriately explained,” Charles said While Yup’ik is a bit like German, where monster-size words are built from smaller components, the ballot was unnecessarily complex, he said. “This measure took me more than 20 minutes to work my way through,” he said.

Even though there’s a Yup’ik term for abortion -- “pilagturluku qingaa arulairtciluku” -- the translators mistakenly used the term “qingairpailgan,” which means “before she is pregnant,” Charles said, leading to the incorrect rendering of the ballot language.

“Just from the two sample ballot measures I have reviewed here, Yup’ik speaking voters are not receiving clear and accurate translations. Instead, they are receiving very hard to understand and sometimes incorrect translations,” Charles said.

The lawsuit argues that the state’s record of language assistance has led to a suppression of the vote in places where residents, especially elders, have limited English proficiency. Charles said he can see why: English is the “survival language” -- many elders only learned enough to get by, but may not ask what something means “out of pride or respect for authority,” he said.

The result is that if they go to the poll, they’ll vote the whole ballot whether they understand the questions or not. Others will skip voting altogether “to avoid the whole process of having to admit they do not understand,” Charles said.

Contact Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.