Company to refund FEMA for botched Yup’ik and Iñupiaq translations

Merbok damage
The remnants of Typhoon Merbok left Newtok’s coastline littered with storm debris in September 2022. (Emily Schwing for KYUK)

A translation service company that contracted with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer disaster relief information to Alaska Natives will reimburse the federal agency for work that has been deemed indecipherable.

Accent on Languages was supposed to translate information for speakers of two Alaska Native languages: Yugtun, or Central Yup’ik, and Iñupiaq. Those documents could have helped Indigenous language speakers impacted by Typhoon Merbok apply for disaster relief.

But the company’s Yup’ik translations turned out to be a mish-mash of phrases lifted from an 80-year-old book of Russian language and folklore. The Iñupiaq translations were written in the Inuktitut alphabet, an Indigenous language spoken in Northeastern Canada. Fluent speakers there said that even in that alphabet, the work doesn’t make sense.

The translation company has committed to reimbursing FEMA for the work. But that’s not enough for former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney.

“Fraud is fraud, in my opinion,” Sweeney said. “And you can’t put a price on the impact [of] denying services to vulnerable communities because of misinformation. When you look at the cost of living in rural Alaska it’s exorbitant and it’s challenging. There’s no dollar amount that can be refunded to the federal government to make that behavior and that business practice okay.”

While a government database does show a $27,800 transaction, Accent on Languages CEO Caroline Lee said in a written statement that amount was not what the company was paid because “the order expired before FEMA made full use of the total amount.”

Lee said that her company was paid just over $5,000. Of that, more than half, or about $3,400, covered the costs for the Yup’ik and Iñupiaq translations. That’s the money Lee said that she will give back to FEMA. Lee wrote that in taking on the translation work, her goal was “not only to just merely help these languages survive, but to help these languages and cultures thrive.”

The contract between Accent on Languages and FEMA falls under a much larger one that the company shares with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Accent on Languages has held contracts with various federal agencies since 2004, according to a federal spending database.

“Have we had this happen at FEMA before? The answer is no,” said FEMA’s Tribal Affairs Advocate Kelbie Kennedy. “We’ve never had this happen before. And this, in particular, is not a systemic issue.”

Kennedy is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She also speaks her Indigenous language.

“We have a very hard working team within FEMA, and we want to make sure that they keep doing the work that they’re doing to improve and get more translations out to Indian Country,” Kennedy said. “It’s so important, I would say as a tribal citizen, to have FEMA speak in a language and speak in my native language in a way that makes sense for my community. You have to have that culturally competent element.”

Kennedy said that the agency has been contacted by members of Congress. She said that FEMA is willing to take part in any sort of investigation that may result from the mistranslations.

Sweeney is pushing for an investigation.

“My recommendation would be to members of Congress to exercise their fiduciary responsibility to American Indians and Alaska Natives across this country to look into whether or not this is common practice for the federal government,” Sweeney said.

Julia Jimmie is a life-long Yup’ik speaker who works as a translator for KYUK in Bethel. She said that there’s a silver lining to what is otherwise a deep disrespect for her language.

“They probably thought Yup’ik and Iñupiaq were going extinct, and they probably thought they wouldn’t be caught,” Jimmie said. “So this puts it out there that Yup’ik and Iñupiaq are still alive and used.”

It’s unclear how or why the work provided by Accent on Languages ended up as it did. The company said that it has provided FEMA with a list of corrective actions. Neither Accent on Languages or FEMA would share that list, but FEMA said that the agency is no longer doing business with the translation company.

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