Interpreting Alaska Native languages requires more than words

By Tamar Ben-Yosef
Barrow, Alaska (AP) 3-08

For years, Alaska Native language speakers have relied on family and friends to help them with bureaucratic red tape, medical appointments, voting and even just getting a driver’s license.

Privacy and confidentiality took a step aside in favor of understanding written documents and what the doctor is saying.

In 2004, the Alaska Court System conducted a survey that identified a need for qualified language interpreters.

These days, the Language Interpreted Center, a nonprofit organization under the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, is in the process of setting up a system that will link trained interpreters to those in need of their services.

The center will not only provide interpreters but will also train qualified candidates so that they answer the communities’ needs.

Barb Jacobs, program manager for the Language Interpretation Center, and Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, have been traveling across Alaska, conducting meetings with local community members in an attempt to figure out exactly what those needs are.

One such meeting took place in Barrow on Feb. 25. Representatives from the Alaska Court System and the Language Interpreter Center met with elders and Inupiaq interpreters and asked them about the language challenges they encounter.

A similar meeting took place in Anchorage on March 5, with elders from the Yukon-Koyokuk region participating via video and teleconference.

Also present in the Anchorage meeting was Holly Mikkelson, a certified interpreter in federal court and adjunct professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Mikkelson has previous experience working with Inupiaq interpreters in Barrow on a federal case.

She likened the situation of need for interpreters in Alaska to that of Hawaii and California, where there is more than one dialect for many of the languages spoken, Spanish for example.

“You have indigenous people from Central America who come from very different cultures and have very different dialects,” Mikkelson said in an interview after the Anchorage meeting.

In Alaska alone, more than 20 Native tongues are spoken, each with various dialects, depending on the region. A severe need for interpreters was found among Yup’ik and Inupiat speakers, particularly among the elders, according to Jacobs.

For non-English speakers, even the small mundane tasks such as filling a prescription can be challenging, let alone signing consent forms or voting by mail.

In June 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, along with the Native American Rights Fund, filed a lawsuit against state and local election officials of behalf of Bethel area voters.

Voters in the region claimed their rights were violated when ballots and resources were not provided for Yup’ik speakers. The lawsuit alleges that the violations have been ongoing, and that elections officials have denied voter assistance and voting materials to non-English speakers.

Alaska is covered by a special section of the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Those provisions apply to areas that meet certain threshold requirements for numbers of residents with limited English proficiency.

Comments gathered from participants in the Anchorage meeting made it clear the language issues go beyond simple word-for-word translation, though.

Roy Agloinga, rural affairs coordinator for the municipality of Anchorage, said part of the problem with translating for Alaska Natives are the actual concepts that are not part of the Native mindset and culture, such as land ownership or creating a will.

“Trying to explain to an elder that they need to decide who their land will go to when they die it’s just not a concept they know,” Agloinga said.

There is one more language that is not an official language but every Alaska Native knows one version or another of it.

Village English, as it is known, is developed individually in each village and uses either a twist on English or a patois of English and Alaska Native words as well as nonverbal communication.

In St. Lawrence Island for instance, villagers whistle at each other and can conduct a whole conversation using nothing but the high-pitched air coming out of their pursed lips.

One suggested solution for training interpreters in Alaska was to practice role-playing real-life situations. Another was to create a list of medical, legal and governmental terms and concepts that interpreters struggle with the most and figure out the best way those can be explained.

Participants at the meeting agreed to reconvene in Anchorage during or right before the 2008 Alaska Federation of Natives. By then, they hope to have established such lists and scenarios so that training of interpreters can begin.