Other Languages

Alaska Must Translate Election into Two Indigenous Languages

Earlier this month, a U.S. district court judge ruled that the Alaska Division of Elections was in violation of the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide election materials in two endangered indigenous languages, Gwich’in and Yupik. In order to comply with the act, the state must translate the material. The ruling means that hundreds of Native Americans in remote regions of Alaska will be able to vote in their native language for the first time. Previously, only information about polling locations and times were delivered to Native Americans in these indigenous languages. All other election materials were in English, and outreach workers were charged with assisting voters with translations.

Judge Sharon Gleason ordered that state officials provide written translations of all voting materials that an English-speaking voter would receive. Judge Gleason ruled that the Alaska Board of Elections was in specific violation of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates the translation of all election materials, not just ballots, when more than 5 percent of a local population speaks a language other than English. In her decision, Gleason said that by placing the responsibility for translation on outreach workers, government officials failed to give native voters information that was equivalent to what English-speaking voters received.

Helping to Preserve Endangered Languages

Alaska has a long and troubling history of disenfranchising indigenous voters. As recently as 2011, the state fell under a Department of Justice investigation for an attempt to eliminate rural voting precincts, a move that would have forced many native Alaskans to travel more than 70 miles to a polling station. It is hoped that the translations will improve native Alaskan access to voting, as well as help to preserve two endangered languages.

Gwich’in (Kutchin) is one of the Athabascan languages, a family of languages spoken throughout Western North America. Comprised of 53 languages spread across over 4 million square kilometers, the Athabascan language family, sometimes also referred to as the Dene, Athapascan, or Athapaskan language group, is the largest North American language family. Gwich’in is spoken in various Alaskan villages throughout the Arctic Circle, as well as in areas across the Northwest Territories and Yukon Territory. Categorized as a severely endangered language by UNESCO, fluent speakers of the language currently number around 300.

Yupik pertains to the Yupik languages, which is comprised of several distinct languages spread throughout western and south-central Alaska and northeastern Siberia. Belonging to the family of Eskimo–Aleut languages, Yupik is also considered to be endangered. Several Yupik languages have already died out, including Sirenik. Formerly spoken on the Chukchi Peninsula, it has been a dead language since 1997.

Translation: No Easy Feat

The state has been ordered to hire a translation company to translate all election materials into the two languages, from public service announcements to buttons for poll workers. All in all, there are more than 600 pages of materials involved. Translating election materials into these two languages is certainly no easy feat.

“Some of it is very technical language, legal jargon, and [it] can be difficult to translate into our language,” explained Gwich’in speaker Allan Hayton, who has been charged with translating the election materials into Gwich’in. Hayton points out that the language is totally distinct from European languages, with its own varied vocabulary and grammatical structures. Furthermore, there are many words in the election materials that simply don’t exist in Gwich’in, including terms like “commerce,” “marijuana,” and “Department of Natural Resources.”

In fact, in Gwich’in there is no word for election — the concept simply doesn’t exist. “If you were going to set out to design a language that was as different from English as possible, you would probably come up with something like Gwich’in,” explained Gary Holton, a linguist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

But if anyone is up to the challenge, it is Hayton. He and his colleague, Marilyn Savage, have English translated into their native language a range of different materials, including the works of Shakespeare. Still, Savage insists that this project is uniquely personal. “I’m thinking about my uncle in Fort Yukon … He’s blind and so it will be good for him to hear our language. I think he’ll have a sense of pride and for a lot of us it will increase voting,” she explained. ”So people will say ‘Oh, did you go to vote? It’s in our language now,’ so I’m excited about it.”


Hindi-to-Punjabi Translation Software Gains Recognition

Translation software from India is quickly garnering international recognition. The software, developed by a faculty member at Punjabi University, was recently showcased at the both the University of Edinburgh and the Indian Government’s Technology Development for Indian Languages (TDIL) and now is available to the public.

'The software has been made available online on the servers
of the Edinburgh University and the TDIL'

...Vishal Goyal, assistant professor at the department of Computer Science at Punjabi University, recently explained. Goyal added that the software is about 95 percent accurate, which is remarkably high for translation software programs. It is anticipated that the success rate can be boosted even further through expansion of the system’s bilingual dictionary.

Regions in India

Both Modern Standard Hindi and Punjabi are official languages of India. Spoken by roughly 180 million people, Hindi is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world. It is most commonly spoken by those in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan.

Punjabi, an Indo-Aryan language, is spoken by an estimated 130 million native speakers worldwide, though it is most commonly spoken by those in Punjab region of Pakistan and India. As of 2013, it was the 10th most widely spoken language in the world, the 11th most widely spoken in India, and the third most natively spoken language in the Indian Subcontinent.

Punjabi is also the fourth most spoken language in England and Wales and third most spoken in Canada. Though it is not an official language of India, it is recognized by the Indian constitution at a state level. In Pakistan, by contrast, it is not officially recognized.

It is hoped that improved Hindi-to-Punjabi translation capabilities will enhance communication on the subcontinent. Translating between the two languages is certainly no easy feat, complicated by spelling variations and collocations. All in all, the new software presents an innovative step toward improved communication.









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