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Alaska Must Translate Election Material Into 2 Indigenous Languages

Oct 7, 2014
Originally published on October 8, 2014 8:50 am

Earlier this year, a judge ruled that Alaskan election officials were in violation of the Voting Rights Act because they did not provide election materials in two dying indigenous languages. They were given until this Friday to comply with the ruling.

The court's decision applies to everything from the buttons that poll workers wear that read "Can I Help?" to candidates' statements to the ballots themselves. There are four regional election pamphlets that are more than 600 pages, and they must be translated into Yupik and Gwich'in.

While the translations into Yupik and Gwich'in are a huge undertaking for Alaska's Division of Elections, it could help save two dying languages. But there are some hurdles.

"Some of it is very technical language, legal jargon, and [it] can be difficult to translate into our language," said Allan Hayton, who is charged with translating the material into Gwich'in. That language is completely unrelated to European languages, and it has its own vast vocabulary. Another wrinkle: There are lots of words that don't exist at all in Gwich'in — terms like "commerce," "marijuana" and "Department of Natural Resources."

Adding modern concepts to languages that are thousands of years old is something Marilyn Savage, Hayton's colleague, said she never really considered, but she understands the necessity.

"I always thought our language was for, you know, people from ancient times and that it was just their day-to-day language for day-to-day living," she said. "Now we're in a century that's pretty high-tech."

Gary Holton, a linguist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, says the language doesn't even describe the very concept of elections. "If you were going to set out to design a language that was as different from English as possible, you would probably come up with something like Gwich'in," he said.

(Editor's note: Listen to the audio above if you want to get a sense of what some of those election materials sound like when spoken in Gwich'in.)

Normally, a dedicated language agency would discuss how best to create new terms, but no such group exists in Alaska. But Holton said this kind of project could help add new vocabulary to the language.

It's unclear how many of the state's 300 native Gwich'in speakers or how many of its 10,000 speakers of Yupik will turn out to the polls next month. But Savage, who worked with Hayton last year to translate Shakespeare into Gwich'in, is working with him again on this translation project. She said the work is more personal this time. "Some people will say, 'Oh, did you go to vote? It's in our language now, you know,' " Savage said. "So I'm pretty excited about it, yeah."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Election officials in Alaska are up against the clock. They have until this Friday to translate all of the state's election materials into two indigenous languages. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the state had violated the Voting Rights Act by not providing the translations into the languages of Yup'ik and Gwich'in. KUAC's Emily Schwing has the story.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: The court ruling applies to everything from poll workers' buttons that read Can I help? - To candidates' statements to the ballots themselves. There are four regional election pamphlets totaling more than 600 pages. Some will be translated into the Yup'ik language. Allan Hayton is translating the material into the Gwich'in language.

ALLAN HAYTON: Some of it is very technical language, legal jargon. And it's - can be difficult to translate into our language.

SCHWING: Gwich'in is entirely unrelated to European languages and its vocabulary is vast. Here's Hayton's translation of this sentence - the Alaska Departments of Natural Resources and Law...

HAYTON: (Speaking Gwich'in).

SCHWING: ...Have prepared the following statement of cost to the state of Alaska.

HAYTON: (Speaking Gwich'in).

SCHWING: Hayton isn't new to this kind of work. Last year, he translated Shakespeare's "King Lear" into Gwich'in along with colleague Marilyn Savage. But she says this time the work is much more personal.

MARILYN SAVAGE: Some people will say, oh, did you go to vote? It's in our language now, you know. So I'm pretty excited about it, yeah.

SCHWING: The translation is slow going because Hayton and Savage are working with a vocabulary that's decidedly not 21st century. Words like commerce, marijuana and terms like Department of Natural Resources simply don't exist in Gwich'in. Gary Holton is a linguistics professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He says translating election materials is particularly daunting because, culturally, the Gwich'in language can't describe the very concept of elections.

GARY HOLTON: If you were going to set out to design a language that was as different from English as possible, you would probably come up with something like Gwich'in.

SCHWING: If they can't find a word in Gwich'in, translators often decide to stick with the English term. Ordinarily, a dedicated language agency would discuss how best to create new terms, but no such group exists in Alaska. Nonetheless, Holton says this kind of work could help add new vocabulary to the language.

HOLTON: I think the best outcome could be that this election ballot translation process actually encourages more of that in other communities.

SCHWING: While the translations into Yup'ik and Gwich'in are a huge undertaking for Alaska's Division of Elections, it could help save two dying languages. Adding modern concepts to languages that are thousands of years old is something Marilyn Savage never really considered, but she understands the necessity.

SAVAGE: I always thought our language was for - you know, from people from ancient times and that it was just their day-to-day language for day-to-day living. Now we're in a century that's pretty high-tech.

SCHWING: It's unclear how many of Alaska's 300 native Gwich'in speakers or the state's 10,000 native Yup'ik speakers might head to the polls in November, but for those who do, it will be the first time they'll have the opportunity to vote in their native languages. For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Fairbanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.