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 said. Alexie is part of the eight-person team that’s trying to translate election materials into Yup’ik. He said 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 said.
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.