AD Main Menu

'Tax-aaq' ballot measure a mouthful in English, Yup’ik or Inupiaq

Alex DeMarban

The ballot measure to repeal the state’s oil tax cut might be the thorniest issue Alaskans ever vote on, but imagine trying to understand terms like “gross revenue exclusion” and “progressivity” in Yup’ik and other Alaska Native languages.

Therein lay the challenge for the state’s Native language translators tasked with turning the dense description of Alaska’s dueling tax systems -- with their bureaucratic mumbo jumbo and thorny calculations -- into a version that people whose English proficiency is limited could digest at the polls.

“That Ballot Measure 1 was a pain in the neck,” said Oscar Alexie, one of six translators who helped create a Yup’ik sample ballot that should be useful in dozens of villages in Western Alaska.

The ballot measure, to be decided by voters Aug. 19, is complicated even in English. At 1,011 words, it’s among the longest Alaskans have ever considered. It’s so long it will take up one side of a jumbo-sized ballot -- 3 inches longer than the usual 8.5-by-11-inch sheet used in primaries. On the other side, numerous candidates for elected office will appear.

Then there’s the informational primary pamphlet on its way to mailboxes. A hefty 48 pages, it cost the state $149,000 for printing and distribution. In it, you’ll find the law itself at 20 pages long, plus pro and con arguments about the measure, and other details on the election.

Shelly Growden, who oversees the Election Division’s effort to translate the measure into five Native languages and Spanish and Tagalog, said it’s the most complex measure -- and possibly the biggest -- she’s seen in more than 20 years working elections.

And that’s just in English.

As for the Native languages, she’s never gotten so many complaints from translators -- who receive $50 an hour in compensation -- or had so many of them back out. “They’re coming back and saying it’s too long, too complex,” said Growden, who oversees the effort but does not do the translating.

Central Yup’ik is the Native language with the most limited-English speakers, and dozens of villages will have translators at the polls offering assistance. It’s the only Native language getting both a written sample ballot and an oral translation.

The other Native languages receive only oral translations, now available online at the Division of Elections website.

In Inupiaq, the language of Alaska’s Far North, a reading of the measure takes more than 13 minutes. In Koyukon Athabascan from the Interior, it’s more than 12 minutes. Central Yup’ik and Gwich'in Athabascan require nearly nine minutes.

Still not finished is the translation for Siberian Yupik. Growden’s original translator backed out.

“I’ve had easier years,” she said.  

The Central Yup’ik translation is the only one done by panel; the others are completed by individuals, such as professors. When the translators met in May, Growden set aside a single day. But they needed twice that long. And they didn’t translate the three other ballot measures that will appear at polls in November, as she had planned.

A big sticking point: the word “barrel.” "Taingkaq" in Yup’ik means fuel drums -- the 55-gallon barrels of heating oil commonly seen in villages, said Alexie. But the group did a Google search and learned that an oil barrel contains 42 gallons.

So the translators stuck with mostly English, calling it "barrel-aam," or “of the barrel.”

Other knotty terms got similar treatment. Among the parade of vowel-stuffed Yup’ik words on the sample ballot, you’ll see things like “gross revenue exclusion-aamek,” referring to a perk for oil that’s newly produced, or newish.

There’s also “progressivity tax-aaq,” referring to the former law’s progressive rates that oil companies didn’t like.

It ends with “Una-qaa alerquun ciuniurumanrilli?” or “Should this law be rejected?”

Numbers weren’t translated, Alexie said. Saying "100" in Yup’ik, for example, would have required the phrase “five 20s.”

With Yup’ik-speaking elders in mind, the panelists took pains to be very accurate, Alexie said. “We hope it’s something that will be useful for people,” said Alexie, an assistant professor of Yup’ik in Bethel. 

As for Growden, she’s looking ahead to the general election in November. That includes getting the Yup’ik panelists together again in August for the three ballot measures -- a minimum-wage increase, marijuana legalization and the one that effectively requires legislative approval for the Pebble prospect.

That ballot will be even bigger, supersized to tabloid dimensions at 8.5 inches by 17 inches, said Elections Director Gail Fenumiai.  

Her advice for voters next month? Study ahead.  

“It’s just going to take voters a bit longer to read through the ballot, and hopefully people will read through the primary voter pamphlet too,” she said.