Translation Ethics: Helluva Job, FEMA!

Nice, careful, professional work by the Federal Emergency Management Agency!

I’m kidding.

After a typhoon caused extensive damage to homes along Alaska’s western coast in September, FEMA’s job was to help residents repair property damage. Since most of the residents were native Alaskans, FEMA chose Accent on Languages, a Berkeley, California company, to translate its usual instructions on how to apply for aid.

They chose…poorly. The documents victims of the typhoon received would have been right at home in the Monty Python skit that featured translation book howlers like “My hovercraft is full of eels.” The Yup’ik and Inupiaq translations were nonsense. “Tomorrow he will go hunting very early, and will nothing,” read one mysterious passage. “Your husband is a polar bear, skinny,” another said. One document had bee translated into Inuktitut, an indigenous language that nobody uses in Alaska.

FEMA fired the translation company. It appears that the words in the “translated” documents were randomly lifted taken from Nikolai Vakhtin’s “Yupik Eskimo Texts from the 1940s.” “They clearly just grabbed the words from the document and then just put them in some random order and gave something that looked like Yup’ik but made no sense,” concluded an investigator.

The company’s CEO wrote, “We make no excuses for erroneous translations, and we deeply regret any inconvenience this has caused to the local community,” adding that FEMA would be getting a refund.


Source: Associated Press

2 thoughts on “Translation Ethics: Helluva Job, FEMA!

  1. This incident is more than an illustration of FEMA’s bungling. It is also an indictment of Alaska’s educational system and policies, in that -more than 60 years after achieving statehood- there is still some significant portion of their population that cannot read and write English (as well as Yupik, Inupiaq, or whatever aboriginal languages the people may choose to preserve). Failing to learn the language of the dominant national culture is sometimes its own punishment. Additionally, I’m actually very surprised that the state Emergency Management people didn’t already have that covered, as they should have. Surely this is not the first time that authorities have needed to communicate with these groups. As for FEMA, only the federal government would think that hiring an out-of-state consultant would be a superior solution to utilizing local bilinguals (there must be some) to translate the forms into the appropriate tongue. Good job, everybody!

  2. Trust a Washington bureaucrat to look to Berkeley, CA for people who can translate Alaskan native languages rather than, you know, Alaska.

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