[Image via kyuk]
Election officials across the country are working to get ready for this year’s high-profile presidential election – building ballots, recruiting poll workers, printing voter guides – but in some jurisdictions the preparation includes extra steps aimed at bringing certain communities into the electorate. That’s the subject of a new piece in Alaska Public Media that goes inside the process of translating ballots and other election materials into Yup’ik, one of the state’s native languages:
The state’s Division of Elections is required to translate ballots and create an elections glossary in six dialects of Yu’pik and also Gwich’in. Those are the terms of a lawsuit settled last year by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. But as Alaska Public Media’s Anne Hillman learned – that process isn’t easy.
Think about these words – candidates for elected office are running for a seat. What image pops in your head? Retired Yup’ik professor Oscar Alexie says not a political event.
“I’m thinking of people like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and all those guys at the race line waiting for someone to say ‘Go!’” And whomever gets to the chair first is the boss, Alexie says.
The challenge, of course, is that it’s not a matter of literally translating the English terms, but rather interpreting them in such a way as to convey the same idea in a different way:
Alexie is part of the eight-person team that’s trying to translate election materials into Yup’ik. He says it’s not easy because the words need to mean something in Yup’ik, not just be literal translations from the English. So one word in English – like candidate – ends up being a phrase in Yup’ik.
But technical ballot language in English is dense. Something like “candidate statement” isn’t straightforward.
“So we’re going to come across a number of statements in the election that are official,” explains Language Assistance Compliance Manager Indra Arriaga to the group of translator.
She tries to get across the exact legal meaning of the term – it isn’t obvious – and it technically matters that the statement is in writing. But when the explanation gets translated into Yup’ik, it becomes redundant.
“It’s almost like saying, you know, this is what he said: ‘That is his bicycle with two wheels,’” Alexie interjects and the group laughs. “You’re adding too much to it like where it’s almost like you are trying to talk to fools, and I don’t like being talked to like that, you know,” Alexie says.
Arriaga quickly explains that’s not what she meant, and others jump in with solutions to ease the frustration and refine the translation. They know they are working together as a team.
The work is proceeding in part with the help of some voters who fought in court to require language assistance for Native Alaskans:
The process of translating 300 words into six dialects requires lots of cooperation between the translators and Arriaga as they discuss the nuances both of the English terms and the different dialects. It is lengthy and arduous. But for Mike Toyukuk, “It’s really good. I like it.”
Toyukuk is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the language assistance settlement.
Thanks in part to him, ballots will be translated into the Yup’ik dialects, Gwich’in, and eventually Inupiaq. Elections workers will be trained to help voters understand the materials in their own languages. He says, through interpreter John Toopetlook, translating the elections glossary and all state and federal ballots will solve a major problem for some rural communities.
“When he was working with the lawyers,” Toopetlook says. “He and they found out a lot of Natives would go vote and not understand what they were voting on.”
As a result, one community in the Yukon didn’t get funding for a new school. People didn’t know to vote in favor of the bond, Toyukuk recalls.
Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke, who is Alaska Native herself, says the translation process is doing more than just making basic voting rights accessible to Alaska Native communities.
“We’re building a bridge of trust and faith between the Alaska Native community and the State of Alaska,” said Bahnke. “And I think you can see that in the way that we’re sitting down and pairing up. The whole process and the interaction between our division and the translators has been pretty powerful to see and watch.”
The group has learned that the work will take longer than expected, but the plan is to have translated materials and aids ready both for the August primary as well as this November’s general:
Bahnke says the group of translators will meet for a second time in the summer. Initially they thought the group would only have to meet once. The division plans to finish the glossary of election terms in time for the primaries in August. Each of the 29 communities involved with the legal settlement will also have sample ballots translated into the local languages and people will be able to listen to translations on a computer.
This is a fascinating story on several levels; not only will Native Alaskans get improved voting materials, but the work has also clearly forced everyone involved – especially English speakers – to see and hear the terms and phrases in election materials with new eyes and ears. [This is the argument that usability experts and plain language advocates make all the time.] That process can only help make those materials make sense in every language, which ends up being good for everyone.
I really enjoyed this story, and I look forward to seeing and hearing more about this work in the months to come. Stay tuned …