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Yup'ik language barrier presents challenges in court proceedings

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 1, 2014

BETHEL -- Imagine going to court -- but everyone's speaking a language you barely understand, using words that aren't even directly translatable.

In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where elders and even many middle-aged people grew up speaking Yup'ik as their first language, that gap is a real problem, two top Bethel lawyers -- District Attorney June Stein and assistant public defender Liz Pederson -- told a recent class of interpreter trainees.

An Anchorage-based organization is working to establish a pool of interpreters specially trained for work in Alaska courts, medical facilities and other institutions. And they are making a special push in the YK Delta.

The project is being led by the Alaska Institute for Justice, a nonprofit legal office for immigrants, and its 7-year-old Language Interpreter Center.

"We can't do the cases if they can't understand the court and the court can't understand them," said Stacey Marz, who works for the court system on language issues and runs the Family Law Self-Help Center. Cases would move forward, but there wouldn't be true justice, she said.

The interpreter center, the courts and two Yup'ik language experts are working to create a Yup'ik legal glossary with an emphasis on problems too common on the Delta: sexual assault, child sexual abuse, domestic violence and parental neglect and abuse.

"Our goal is to make sure that all Alaskans have access to the services that they need regardless of their ability to speak English," said Robin Bronen, executive director of the justice institute.

Yup’ik-speaking grandparents

Of Alaska's 20 Native languages officially recognized by the state under a new law, Yup'ik -- spoken in much of Southwest Alaska -- presents the biggest need for interpreters, say project leaders. In linguistic jargon, interpreters work with oral language and translators with written words, though many people call them all translators.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which runs the regional Bethel hospital and clinics, employs two people in community relations who work as Yup'ik translators. When they are not available, others who are bilingual step in, said YKHC spokeswoman Donna Bach.

"There may be an ER clerk who can say 'this is what the person is saying,' " Bach said. They are familiar with medical terms and human anatomy even if they haven't gone through interpreter training, she said.

In the Lower Kuskokwim School District, almost all schools have administrative assistants who are fluent in Yup'ik and can interpret, and most schools teach both Yup'ik and English, said superintendent Jacob Jensen. Yup'ik-speaking teachers translate for their colleagues, he said.

"Most parents don't have an issue with English," Jensen said. "It's the grandparents or the great-grandparents. So if they are raising the kids, that tends to be a bigger issue." Older caregivers usually just bring someone to the school to interpret for them, he said.

The Alaska Institute for Justice and the courts, meanwhile, are trying to develop interpreters specially trained in both the ethics of interpretation and the language of the legal and medical systems.

Legal cases are especially challenging. Interpreters may have to relay hard legal concepts like jurisdiction, disposition and arraignment, a reference to what is usually the first court appearance. They also must interpret the words of experts.

"It may be ballistics, drug language, medical terminology, engineering stuff," Marz said. "There's a lot of self-study that's involved."

A two-day training last week on the Kuskokwim campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks marked the fourth time the interpreter center has gone to Bethel to recruit and train interpreters. This month, the center is putting on a session in Anchorage for those interested in medical interpretation. It expects to see some of the same faces.

Incompetency test

An early draft of the Yup'ik legal glossary illustrates the challenge.

Consider the translation for "incompetent." In English that means "lacking legal capacity to stand trial."

In Yup'ik, it's "elluarrluten taringeluaqerciigalavet." The literal translation of that is "because you are unable to really understand," according to the glossary being compiled largely by Oscar and Sophie Alexie, two Yup'ik language experts who teach at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim.

In class, Marz explained the legal concept further.

"It's not because of language but because they might have brain damage, a head injury or something that impairs their mental function. So that no matter if you were speaking the same language or you explained it 100 different ways, they are never going to understand it," she told the trainees.

Yup'ik people try not to talk directly about certain things, responded trainee Richard Slats of Chevak.

"We don't go out and just say 'because you have mental illness,'" Slats said. "We work around saying that."

The process started a decade ago when the Alaska Court System hosted its first of three summits to evaluate language issues. In 2005, 1,000 surveys went out to evaluate the interpretation needs of those working in Alaska's legal, medical, education and social services fields.

"We learned that annually, agencies were spending about $1 million for interpreters they were not happy with," Bronen said. The survey also confirmed that Yup'ik is one of the primary languages spoken in Alaska.

In 2007, the Anchorage-based Language Interpreter Center was born out of that effort and has been recruiting, testing and training interpreters ever since. It's building a registry of interpreters on whom courts, medical facilities, social service agencies, schools and others can draw when they need to hire a professional. Barb Jacobs, a former Anchorage School District teacher, counselor and administrator, is the interpreter center's program manager.

The Rasmuson Foundation has provided almost $1 million in grants to develop the language project, Bronen said.

Across Alaska, more than 200 people speaking 40 languages have been trained and screened, with a few dozen called on to work as interpreters in any given month. They are independent contractors, with their fees paid by the agencies that need their help, Bronen said. Rates vary depending on the interpreter's skill level and the situation, according to the interpreter center.

A federal law, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, requires any agency that receives federal money to provide "language access," she said.

The language effort is really two-pronged, Bronen said. Advocates are working to train interpreters and also to make sure agencies know the requirements.

So far just one Yup'ik speaker in the trained pool is working in the courts, and the person is based in Anchorage, calling in to Yukon-Kuskokwim proceedings, according to the interpreter center. A few others interpret for other agencies.

The court training session drew 11 people fluent in both English and Yup'ik or Cup'ik, the dialect for Chevak. Most lived in Bethel but others came from Newtok, Chevak, Hooper Bay and Anchorage. The justice institute training was co-sponsored by the Alaska Court System, UAF's Kuskokwim campus, and the Tundra Women's Coalition.

Sad and horrible things

In court, the words may be unfamiliar and the situations disturbing.

"You might have to interpret things that are really difficult," Kari Robinson, the interpreter center's Juneau-based coordinator for language access and domestic violence services, told the recent class. The Tundra Women's Coalition, which runs a shelter and provides other services for domestic violence victims, can provide counseling if emotions are stirred up, she said.

Not everyone skilled in language will be able to do the work, organizers said.

"We deal with horribly sad things and tragic things and hurtful things," Stein, the district attorney, told the class. "It may be a situation where you have to explain for us about some bad thing that happened to their relative. Maybe there's going to be pictures of injuries and we want to talk to them about it."

Both Stein and Pederson, the defense lawyer, said they have a dire need for translators and must find their own; the Bethel courts don't provide one. That wasn't the case in bigger Outside communities where they used to work, where interpreters were based in the courthouses and always available. Here they often turn to their own staff members to translate, pulling them away from their main duties.

"There is no process by which I could flag the court and say, 'For this hearing, we need a translator,'" Pederson told the court system's Marz.

Marz said the interpreter center is working to ensure trained interpreters are available. A proposed new court rule would require the court system to provide them for court proceedings, though not for the preliminary work, including jailhouse interviews, she said.

"It's always been a problem," Pederson told her. "You are always grabbing people. I've had aunts and uncles, friends, other inmates."

When Pederson first arrived in Bethel a decade ago, a cultural liaison based at the courthouse would translate. But the position soon went away, she said.

"The best we can do right now is create a legal glossary and train, train, train," Marz responded. Attorneys also need to flag the problem, she said. Defendants usually don't speak in criminal court proceedings, so the judge may not know of the language difficulty, Marz said.

Some speak in Yup'ik as soon as the legal proceeding or interview ends, Pederson said.

"That tells me maybe I shouldn't be speaking to you about these concepts that are complicated and when what is at stake is so significant, in a language that you weren't raised in," she said. "They can get groceries. They can get by. They can speak English. But not around issues as serious and complicated as those in the court system."

Code of ethics

Interpreters not only must be fluent in two languages, they must follow ethical standards, the class was told. They need to interpret accurately, conveying the meaning of what was said either simultaneously or after the person says a few words or a sentence or two. They can't put their own spin on it.

In some villages, people tend to say "no" when they mean "yes," Slats, the trainee from Chevak, said.

Say it the way the person said it, the instructors told him. Interpreters can flag a perceived misunderstanding by saying something to the effect of "the interpreter observes a communication problem."

"Is it OK to say I made a mistake?" trainee Helen Sorensen of Bethel asked. Yes, the instructors said. That's part of the code of ethics.

Judges may push interpreters to summarize what was said to speed proceedings up, the class was told. They need to push back and say they can't do that.

If they know the person for whom they are interpreting, they need to reveal that and might have to be excused, the class was told.

After observing a Bethel court session during the class, trainee Nastasia Ulroan of Hooper Bay said she recognized the defendant in a domestic violence case and also knew the victim, who called in.

"My heart started pounding really bad," Ulroan said. She said she wouldn't have been able to translate. It seemed like a conflict of interest, she said, using the term from the ethics code.

That's right, Bronen told her.

"It's a really great example of why family and friends should never be used," Bronen said. "It's just really hard to separate yourself when you care about people."

Later, Ulroan said she wanted to continue to study as an interpreter.

"I want to feel fully confident," she said. "I want to get the full knowledge of the right, pinpointed word to explain in one piece."

She said she wants to know, "in Yup'ik way, the right word that would explain everything. Because words are evolving."