After extreme weather caused by Typhoon Merbok pounded Alaska’s west coast in September, Alaska Native residents sought government aid to help deal with the destruction—only to receive absurd instructions from FEMA that were supposed to be written in two Indigenous languages, a Yup’ik dialect and Iñupiaq, but were instead incoherent.
“Your husband is a polar bear, skinny,” stated one passage in Federal Emergency Management Agency paperwork that was supposed to help residents file for aid, the Associated Press reported.
“Tomorrow he will go hunting very early, and will (bring) nothing,” another fragment said. According to AP, the sentence inexplicably had the word “Alaska” in the middle.
The unintelligible translations emerged as part of a contract between FEMA and a California-based third-party company, Accent on Language. The company, which was fired and has since apologized, was supposed to produce informational documents in Yup’ik and Iñupiaq to help people affected by the storm apply for disaster relief. Instead, whoever was in charge of producing the translations likely pulled random phrases from online sources and produced nonsensical materials, experts say. (The exact process that led to the errors remains unclear.)
While this situation is unique—and government officials said this isn’t a “systemic” problem—it has made experts question whether existing translation processes can adequately honor Indigenous languages and the communities who speak them. Some experts are even worried that there are more mistranslated government texts in circulation already that simply haven’t been caught. These concerns feel particularly urgent at a time when Indigenous communities are bearing the brunt of climate change and related extreme weather events that are occurring with alarming frequency.
“No one was attempting to do a translation,” said Gary Holton, a professor of linguistics at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and former director of the Alaska Native Language Archive. “The (instructions) were kind of a word salad composed of random words.”
Central Alaskan Yup'ik is the most commonly spoken Indigenous language in Alaska, with about 10,000 speakers, according to the Alaska Native Language Center. In fact, some children still learn it as a first language in 17 Yup'ik villages. The state is also home to about 13,500 Inupia, and about 3,000 of them, mostly older than 40, speak their language. Those most affected by poor translations are elders, many of whom are more comfortable speaking in their Indigenous languages than in English.
“There are certainly very many people who are disenfranchised by this error,” Holton said.
The Yup’ik phrases specifically appear to be pulled from a document dating back to the 1940s that was recently digitized, Holton said. The source document, collected by a Russian linguist, memorializes folk tales in Yup’ik dialects.
“These documents record a language of elders—a rich and vibrant language,” Holton said. “These are recordings of elders with such valuable history for Yup’ik people that have become part of a game.”
Holton said he’s worried there are more texts out there with similar translation errors that are yet to be caught.
And bizarrely, the Iñupiaq phrases were written in Inuktitut syllabics, which aren’t even part of Alaska Native languages, but rather, are used in Nunavut, a northern territory in Canada, according to KYUK, the Alaska-based public radio station that broke the story.
Iñupiaq and Inuktitut are related languages, but fluent Inuktitut speakers told KYUK that even the sentences written in syllabics make no sense.
FEMA did not respond to VICE News' request for comment, but spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg told AP that the organization takes responsibility for the errors and has since corrected them. The agency is also reportedly taking steps to make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated. No one was denied aid amid the mistakes, AP reported.
Black people, Native people, and people of color are also disproportionately bearing the brunt of climate change, and the Arctic in particular is warming at an alarming rate. VICE News previously reported how one northern community is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, more people in the North than ever are falling through weak ice, and coastal communities are literally following into the ocean. It’s highly likely that Typhoon Merbok was able to form in the first place because of rising ocean temperatures.
This all makes these translation errors even more concerning.
“They definitely missed the mark in the translations for their Merbok Typhoon Disaster outreach, which was disappointing,” Rep. Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, said in an emailed statement to VICE News. Peltola said that her office has been in touch with FEMA, and confirmed that the agency started coordinating with the Language Interpreter Center at the Alaska Institute for Justice after it found out about the translation issues.
Accent on Language, the California-based team initially hired to translate the materials, issued its own public apology. “We were deeply upset to learn that grossly erroneous translations were submitted on behalf of our company,” said Caroline Lee, the company’s CEO. “Upon learning of this issue in October 2022, we immediately conducted an internal investigation, and all work with the translators responsible for these materials was terminated.”
Lee said the company has implemented new checks and balances as part of its translation process in order to avoid repeating mistakes, and will refund FEMA the money it received for the job.
According to Holton, FEMA shouldn’t have hired a third party company in the first place, and instead should hire locals in Alaska. “It becomes an extension of persecution: ‘We won't even let you do the translations,’” Holton said. “It’s just bizarre. Why not approach the community and say, ‘Can you do this?’ There are plenty of people who could have done this in Alaska, but that’s not what they chose to do.”
The situation in Alaska following Merbok, experts say, also serves as a stark reminder of the United States’ legacy of mistreating Native communities, and its concerted, decades-long efforts to assimilate Native people and eradicate their language and culture.
“When my mother was beaten for speaking her language in school, like so many hundreds, thousands of Alaska Natives, to then have the federal government distributing literature representing that it is an Alaska Native language, I can’t even describe the emotion behind that sort of symbolism,” Tara Sweeney, former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, told AP.
Sweeney, who is Iñupiaq herself, also said she wants to see a congressional oversight hearing to investigate further.
“These government contracting translators have certainly taken advantage of the system, and they have had a profound impact, in my opinion, on vulnerable communities,” Sweeney said.
Holton noted that because many Indigenous languages are endangered, bad translations risk making speakers second guess their own language abilities—making it easier for people abusing the system to get away with it.
“The insulting thing about doing this with an endangered language is there are members of the target community who, after years of persecution, may say, ‘Well, I don't feel confident in my language, so maybe I don't know my language very well,” Holton said. “So, not only can you pull this off on FEMA or the general public, who doesn't know Yup’ik anyway, but you can even pull this off with the target population.”
“They probably thought Yup’ik and Iñupiaq were going extinct, and they probably thought they wouldn’t be caught,” Julia Jimmie, a translator in Alaska who works for KYUK, told her employer. “This puts it out there that Yup’ik and Iñupiaq are still alive and used.”