Interpreting Native speech requires more than words

Posted: Tuesday, March 25, 2008

BARROW - For years, Alaska Native language speakers have relied on family and friends to help them with bureaucratic red tape, medical appointments, voting and even just getting a driver's license.

Privacy and confidentiality took a step aside in favor of understanding written documents and what the doctor is saying.

In 2004, the Alaska Court System conducted a survey that identified a need for qualified language interpreters.

These days, the Language Interpreted Center, a nonprofit organization under the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, is in the process of setting up a system that will link trained interpreters to those in need of their services.

The center will not only provide interpreters but also will train qualified candidates so they can answer the communities' needs.

Barb Jacobs, program manager for the Language Interpretation Center, and Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, have been traveling across Alaska to conduct meetings with local community members in an attempt to figure out exactly what those needs are.

In Alaska alone, more than 20 Native tongues are spoken, each with various dialects, depending on the region. A severe need for interpreters was found among Yup'ik and Inupiat speakers, particularly among the elders, according to Jacobs.

For non-English speakers, even the small mundane tasks such as filling a prescription can be challenging, let alone signing consent forms or voting by mail.

Roy Agloinga, rural affairs coordinator for the municipality of Anchorage, said part of the problem with translating for Alaska Natives are the actual concepts that are not part of the Native mindset and culture, such as land ownership or creating a will.

"Trying to explain to an elder that they need to decide who their land will go to when they die, it's just not a concept they know," Agloinga said.

There is one more language that is not an official language but every Alaska Native knows one version or another of it.

Village English, as it is known, is developed individually in each village and uses either a twist on English or a patois of English and Alaska Native words as well as nonverbal communication.

In St. Lawrence Island for instance, villagers whistle at each other and can conduct a whole conversation using nothing but the high-pitched air coming out of their pursed lips.

One suggested solution for training interpreters in Alaska was to practice role-playing real-life situations. Another was to create a list of medical, legal and governmental terms and concepts that interpreters struggle with the most and figure out the best way those can be explained.

Participants at the meeting agreed to reconvene in Anchorage during or right before the 2008 Alaska Federation of Natives convention. By then, they hope to have established such lists and scenarios so that training of interpreters can begin their work.

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