Yup’ik Ballots in Alaska Illuminate Language Challenges for Ballots, Election Materials

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[Image courtesy of AJA]

Alaska voters go to the polls today, but there are concerns that one of the largest non-English speaking populations in the state may not be getting adequate language assistance. AlJazeera America has more:

Ahead of tomorrow’s primary elections in Alaska, every voter in the state should have received a pamphlet that introduces the candidates, describes ballot issues and explains how to vote.

The pamphlets are available in Spanish and Tagalog — but not Yup’ik, a language spoken by Alaska Natives, even though it is among the most commonly spoken languages in the state.

At least 10,000 people speak Yup’ik, according to the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It’s the second-most-spoken Native language in the U.S., after Navajo. Many speakers live in the community of Bethel or surrounding smaller rural villages in southwestern Alaska.

While the state does produce Yup’ik language materials (like the sample ballot above), advocates suggest the language used in such materials doesn’t provide sufficient assistance:

When Yup’ik-only speakers get to the voting booth, they may request a Yup’ik sample ballot, which can also be read to them. Though the translation may be technically correct, it may be in an unfamiliar dialect or so dense and convoluted that, some Alaska Native leaders say, older Natives in particular will feel they are voting blindly. The ballot they mark will be written in English.

One major challenge is that Yup’ik – like many native languages – is not primarily a written language and has evolved over time:

Native languages are traditionally oral. The written forms were developed by Moravian and Catholic missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then changed again in a university setting in the 1960s. Secondary education was not available to Native people in many villages until courts required it in the 1970s. For those reasons, segments of the non-English population who are over 50 are illiterate in their own languages. It is estimated that half of Yup’ik speakers can read and write in Yup’ik, according to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The number of Yup’ik speakers who cannot speak English or read Yup’ik is unknown.

Experts studying the Yup’ik issue are encountering the same problems that other language advocates have found in developing election materials nationwide: the density of the English involved, the challenge in interpreting the language rather than translate it word-for-word and dialect differences within the affected population:

Walkie Charles, a native Yup’ik speaker and language professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, was asked by the plaintiffs [in a pending Voting Rights Act lawsuit] to look at Yup’ik translations of ballot measures from 2010 and 2012. He found a persistent problem with clarity.

“It took me more than 30 minutes to review one ballot measure,” he wrote in his findings.

With that measure, related to public corruption, he used an English version to see if he could discern the Yup’ik. That is when he realized it had been translated literally, word for word, without regard for how the language is spoken.

“The best way to describe it is Yup’ik legalese, or Yup’ified English,” he wrote. “The end result is that it is a struggle even for a native speaker like myself to read and understand this.”

Charles believes translations should focus on clarity of concepts rather than word-for-word translation and should use comparisons to help speakers understand.

“If we are going to make it correct, it has to have some story in it or some kind of narrative,” he said.

He also had a hard time with a ballot measure relating to parental consent for abortion. The translation to him seemed very dense, and it did not use “pilagturluku qingaa arulairtelluku,” the term he was most familiar with for “abortion.” Instead it used “qingairpailgan,” which he read as “before she is pregnant.” So initially he thought the measure was asking people to vote on whether parental permission should be required for a young woman to become pregnant, he said.

He later discovered the translation was correct but used a different dialect from the one he was raised speaking. He said translations should also include footnotes for dialect differences. The members of the state’s Yup’ik translation panel, he noted, all speak the same dialect.

To be fair, if these translations are difficult for an expert imagine how difficult they must be for an election official with mountains of other pre-election tasks. As language assistance grows to include more languages in more communities, election officials are going to have to rely upon local communities – and their colleagues across the nation – to make sure that the election materials a voter gets on or before Election Day are materials that can read, understand – and use.

egmiute-tangercet’ar [“Stay tuned (continue to watch)!”]*

*[hat-tip to FREELANG for the hopefully not wildly incorrect translation!]

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