Alaska Court System gets first official Yup’ik interpreter

In the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, where Yup’ik is the primary spoken language, the Alaska Court System has a new Yup’ik interpreter, who happens to be the first official interpreter for the language in the country. Crystal Garrison, who recently passed the National Center for State Courts’ written exam for Court Interpreter, has become the first Yupik speaker to do so. And she didn’t just barely pass – she got a score of 93.

Crystal Garrison (Photo by KYUK - Bethel)
Crystal Garrison (Photo by KYUK – Bethel)

There are about 10,000 Yup’ik speakers in the Delta. Sometimes these people find themselves in court, which can be confusing for English speakers, but even more so for those speaking English as a second language or who don’t speak English at all.

“First I try and figure out exactly what they’re there for, and usually they’re in some type of distress or worrying about something when they come to the court,” Crystal Garrison said. She has spent the last five years learning the ins and outs of interpreting in the court. Garrison has worked for the Alaska Court System in Bethel for 15 years. She was born in the regional hub, but grew up in the small village of Eek where she spoke mostly Yup’ik until her family moved to Anchorage when she was ten. There, she went to an all-English speaking school.

“The first friend I made, she was Caucasian, she’s still one of my best friends to this day. But I remember talking with her, and just speaking very basic English to her, and she wouldn’t make fun of me, but she’d say ‘What’s wrong with your English?’, or ‘What’s your accent?’ She thought it was different, and to me I wasn’t speaking any different than she was,” Garrison said.

Language has always been important to Garrison, and when she started working for the courts she noticed a big problem.

“I saw a lot of defendants not being able to express or communicate with the people that they needed to for a better outcome for them,”Garrison said.

Garrison brought this issue up with her bosses, who agreed. Together they worked to certify Garrison as a court interpreter. Stacy Marz, Director of Self-Help Services for the Alaska Court System, is one of the people who helped Garrison with the process, and has been working with Garrison and others on a range of tools to translate legal terms.

“We have been working to develop a Yup”ik legal glossary, so that there’s a common language to talk about these terms,” Marz said.

As with other languages, there are not always words for certain concepts, so interpreters have to use long descriptions instead. It can be hard to nail down the right phrase.

“I remember when we were talking about the phrase in English: domestic violence protective order. It took, I think, over two hours to come up with analogous language in Yup’ik to describe that,” said Marz.

Marz and her team will continue to grow the glossary, while Garrison has other goals. She wants to train more interpreters.