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Hats off to Alaska translators of ballot issues; heaven help you

Elise Patkotak

My heart goes out to all Alaska Native speakers asked to translate anything into their Native language. It’s not easy. The English language has many words that simply do not convert to a language that never had that concept in its past. Let me give you an example.

Many, many, many years ago, I worked at the North Slope Borough’s Health Department. With a predominantly Inupiat population, we recognized the need for translators in the hospital and clinic for people with English as a second language. Anyone who has tried to convey their symptoms to a doctor in their shared primary language knows that it’s hard enough to get across what you are actually feeling. If you and the doctor do not share a primary language, this can become an impossible task. Not only is it hard for you to explain your problem to the doctor, it is equally hard for the doctor to ask you questions or explain the tests they will have to do.

But if your language does not have a word for the symptom the doctor is questioning or the test he or she is recommending, the whole situation can quickly devolve into a comedy of errors. Needless to say, this is frustrating for all concerned. The patient doesn’t know how to communicate to the doctor. The doctor can’t find the right words to convey his meaning to the patient. And the poor translator sits in the middle of it all unable to offer the service so desperately needed.

So, way back when, staff at the health department asked elders to help us out by working with one of our Inupiat staff to translate some medical terminology into Inupiaq words and phrases that would make sense to those for whom it was their primary language. When we made this request, we didn’t think it would generate the amount of laughter that continually emanated from the room where the elders, for no particular reason all women, sat to craft the words.

After one peal of laughter that simply went on too long for me to withhold my curiosity any longer, I asked our translator what was happening that was so funny. She looked a bit abashed and then, shyly fumbling for words, said that the ladies had been trying to craft an Inupiat word for the medical term “colonoscopy.” No further explanation was needed.

Anyone who gets the voting pamphlet from the Division of Elections is aware of just how confusing many of the issues can be when “explained” in such a way as to meet all legal standards. This is probably why most of us toss them fairly quickly into the recycling bin. Imagine trying to take that language and translate it into a language that doesn’t have the words or concepts for that material. It is a Sisyphean task and, in the end, you will never make everyone happy with the results. Quite frankly, when I look at some of the ballot measures I’m asked to vote on, I feel exactly like someone for whom English is a second language in that I find it almost impossible to decipher or understand.

Alaska Native speakers have every right to have the ballots they are asked to vote on translated into language they understand so that they can cast informed votes. So do English speakers. Because if informed voting is not the basis of our democracy, then I don’t know what is.

I don’t pretend to know how to solve this problem, but I’d like to request that if and when any given ballot is translated into an Alaska Native language in a simple and understandable form, can the state please translate the simple form back into English and send it to me. Because just once before I go off into the sunset, I’d really like to say I understood the gobbledy-gook I find on my ballot. Or maybe the answer is to simply have the ballots printed with all the legal words and then a simple couple of sentences in everyday English at the end that explains what all the craziness above it means.

And to all those heroic translators out there who are trying to span two worlds and explain concepts that never existed in their traditional world, kudos for doing an often thankless and extremely difficult job.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.