Gibberish translations marred disaster relief effort in Alaska

A California-based language service provider (LSP) is in hot water this week, after reports came out that the company provided the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with nonsensical translations into Indigenous languages.

As Typhoon Merbok swept across the state of Alaska in September, FEMA commissioned the LSP, Accent on Languages, to translate official disaster relief information regarding the storm into Yugtun and Iñupiaq. However, when the LSP delivered the final product to FEMA — who in turn distributed them to individuals living in areas with relatively high populations of Yugtun and Iñupiaq speakers — it soon became clear that the “translations” were complete gibberish. 

For example, one sentence in one of the mistranslated documents literally means “Your husband is a polar bear, skinny,” in English. Although FEMA resolved the issue quietly in October, a recent report by KYUK, a local NPR affiliate exposed some of the errors to a wider audience.

“The only thing you might gather from [the documents] is there are a couple of dates, but you wouldn’t know what those dates are for,” a linguist who reviewed the text told KYUK. “ I would say the only useful bit of information in there might be if there’s a reference to a website or something.”

Typhoon Merbok hit the western coastline of Alaska in mid-September, causing $28 million in damages from flooded homes and neighborhoods. About 20,000 people speak Yugtun natively, while a little more than 2,000 speak Iñupiaq; many speakers of the languages live in hard-hit regions, so it was particularly important to get critical information on disaster relief to the residents in their native language.

According to a recent statement published by the company’s CEO earlier this month, the company conducted an internal investigation in October, ending its relationship with the translators who worked on the project and refunded FEMA in full, providing revised translations that correctly rendered the text into the languages requested. 

“We operated in good faith that the translators on this project could deliver on their promises, and that trust was broken,” reads a public statement from Caroline Lee, CEO of Accent on Languages. “As a language service provider that works hard to bring people together through top-quality translation and client services, and given our goal of providing translations to support FEMA’s important emergency communications, what was submitted remains horrifying.”

For their part, Accent on Languages also notes that it’s since installed a handful of new checks and balances to its workflow — for example, a new review team — to ensure that it does not repeat its mistakes.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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