FEMA hired a California government contractor to translate disaster-assistance information into two native Alaska languages, but all it and the natives got was a big heap of nonsense.
After a typhoon hammered the west coast of Alaska in September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hired a Berkeley-based company, Accent on Languages, to translate instructions for applying for disaster aid.
- "Your husband is a polar bear, skinny."
- “Tomorrow he will go hunting Alaska very early, and will (bring) nothing”
- "When she said so, the dog ran farther off from the curtain.”
University of Alaska Fairbanks linguist Gary Holton says one of the translations is a random assortment of phrases copied from a compilation of far-eastern Russian folklore: "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,” Holton told AP. He summed up the work as a "word salad."
In a publicly-posted letter, Accent on Languages CEO Caroline Lee said her firm will reimburse FEMA $5,116. "We make no excuses for erroneous translations, and we deeply regret any inconvenience this has caused to the local community."
Lee said when the "horrifying," botched translations came to her attention, that her company hired a new team of translators to do the project over again. FEMA has fired the company.
Former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney wants more than a reimbursement, saying the company is guilty of fraud — "and you can't put a price on the impact of denying services to vulnerable communities because of misinformation." The grandstanding Sweeney even called for congressional hearings.
We wonder if Accent on Languages was itself a victim of fraud on the part of whomever it assigned to do the original translation.
Associated Press presented the fiasco as new evidence of systemic racism. Reporter Mark Thiessen called it "an ugly reminder for Alaska Natives of the suppression of their culture and languages from decades past," and quoted Sweeney as she linked the bogus translations to her mother being beaten in school for speaking her native tongue.
Like so many government contractors with ownership and leadership optimized for affirmative-action-driven contract awards, Accent on Languages touts itself as a "female, minority-owned business."