After the remnants of Typhoon Merbok hit Western Alaska in September 2022, damaging houses, subsistence resources and cultural sites, the federal government offered residents aid for repairs. But the guidelines for applying for assistance were mistranslated in Yup’ik and Inupiaq, KYUK Public Media reported.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered Western Alaska residents instructions on how to file for aid, but what residents found instead were nonsensical phrases in their Native languages, KYUK and The Associated Press reported.
Several Indigenous language speakers told Bethel-based KYUK that the translations were not Yugtun, Central Yup’ik, Cup’ik or Siberian Yup’ik. The Iñupiaq translations didn’t make sense either, Tara Sweeney, the former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs under the Trump administration, told KYUK.
Some translations did not sound correct in any language, while other phrases were written in Inuktitut, one of the Indigenous languages of Northeastern Canada, KYUK reported.
It’s hard to call the FEMA documents translations or a source of any useful information, Alaska Native Language Center linguist Gary Holton told KYUK. According to Holton, the FEMA documents quoted phrases from the 1940s book of fieldwork notes that Ekaterina Rubtsova collected on Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula.
“The only thing you might gather from that is there are a couple of dates, but you wouldn’t know what those dates are for,” Holton told KYUK about the translations. “I would say the only useful bit of information in there might be if there’s a reference to a website or something.”
According to the AP, one passage of translated documents read as, “Tomorrow he will go hunting very early, and will (bring) nothing.” Another said, “Your husband is a polar bear, skinny,” the AP reported.
“I mean imagine if someone, you know, took all of your folktales and then interviewed your great-grandmother about her experiences growing up. And had all of this information recorded, and wrote it down, and then scrambled it and stuck it in various different ways and made kind of a collage out of it,” Holton told KYUK. “It’s offensive.”
After the public learned about the mistranslations, FEMA acknowledged the mistake and fired the California-based translation company Accent on Languages, the AP reported. The agency’s spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg told the AP that FEMA is working to make sure the situation isn’t repeated in the future.
Caroline Lee, the CEO of Accent on Languages, said in a statement that the company will refund FEMA the $5,116 it received for the translations and will do an internal review.
“We make no excuses for erroneous translations, and we deeply regret any inconvenience this has caused to the local community,” Lee said in a statement.
Still, the mistakes deeply affected some Indigenous residents and leaders.
Sweeney told the AP that FEMA’s errors reminded her about the trauma caused by the government and school teachers preventing Alaska Native children from speaking their Native languages. Sweeney’s great-grandfather, Roy Ahmaogak, helped develop the Inupiaq alphabet, the AP reported.
“When my mother was beaten for speaking her language in school, like so many hundreds, thousands of Alaska Natives, to then have the federal government distributing literature representing that it is an Alaska Native language, I can’t even describe the emotion behind that sort of symbolism,” Sweeney told the AP.
Sweeney said a congressional oversight hearing is needed to estimate the scale of such translation errors throughout the government, the AP reported. U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who is Yup’ik, told the AP it was disappointing that FEMA failed to make the translations correct.
After the remnants of Typhoon Merbok hammered a wide swath of Western Alaska, FEMA approved assistance for about 1,300 people and has paid out about $6.5 million, Rothenberg told the AP.