Gwitch’in Translators Scramble to Ready Election Materials

According to a U.S. district court order, the Alaska Division of Elections has until October 10th to provide outreach and poll workers in three remote regions of the state with election materials and voting information that has been translated from English into either Yupik or Gwich’in. In Fairbanks, Gwich’in translators are finding the process challenging.

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Allan Hayton was contracted by the state Division of Elections. “Some of it is very technical language, legal jargon,” he says.

But this isn’t the first time he and his colleague, Marilyn Savage have tried to translate a large body of work into their native language. “We’ve translated other materials too, like Shakespeare,” says Hayton. “Marilyn and I worked last year translating King Lear into Gwich’in, so we’re used to difficult challenges but we’re happy to do this.”

For Marilyn Savage, this is also personal. “I’m think about my uncle in Fort Yukon,” she says.  “He’s blind and so it will be good for him to hear our language.  I think he’ll have a sense of pride and for a lot of us it will increase voting.  So people will say ‘oh, did you go to vote? It’s in our language now,’ so I’m excited about it.”

Savage plans to use the Gwich’in ballot this November.  “Just mainly because it’s available and I’m curious to see how it’s presented,” she laughs.

And how it’s presented is key. Hayton says they have to remain objective, regardless of how they feel about a candidate or a ballot measure. “You can’t try to sway voters, you just have to present the material as it is.”

Marilyn Savage does think it’s tough. “Oh yeah, I think it is challenging and you do think about what this is going to do for people’s lives,” she says.

But there’s also no direct translation in Gwich’in for words like ‘commerce,’ ‘marijuana’ or terms like ‘Department of Natural Resources,” and those words all appear on Alaska’s November ballot. Gary Holton is a linguistics Professor at UAF’s Alaska Native Language Center.  He says translating election materials is daunting because culturally, Gwich’in can’t describe some of the concepts involved in the process.

“If you were going to design a language that’s as different from English as possible, you would probably come up with Gwich’in,” Holton says.

There are no Latin roots and Gwich’in vocabulary is vast. “If you’re looking for a word that means ‘to go,’ you may struggle because in Gwich’in, talking about ‘to go,’ it makes a difference whether you’re talking about one person or two people or three people or an animal that’s migrating,” Holton explains. “All of those are different words for ‘to go’ that in English we would use the same words for those.”

The state has been ordered to translate everything from public service announcements to buttons for poll workers as well as the four regional election pamphlets.  That’s more than 600 pages of material. Marilyn Savage says she never expected her native language to be involved in the modern election process.

“I always thought our language was from people from ancient times and that it was just their day-to- day language for day-to-day living,” says Savage. “Now, we’re in a century that’s pretty high tech.”

Every registered voter receives an election pamphlet by mail, but in an email, State Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai says there’s no way to know for sure whether voters read them before they go to the polls. Allan Hayton says that doesn’t matter. “I think in the long run, we do need to have everything that every other voter would have in their language.”

According to the Alaska Native Language Center, there are roughly 300 native Gwich’in speakers in the state.  It’s not clear how many of them plan to vote this November, but if they do, it will be the first time they’ll use a ballot written in their native language and they might discover a few new words.