Alaska Natives are underserved by emergency translation services

A FEMA contractor’s incompetence in Alaska Native languages highlights a systemic problem.

A company that accrued more than a million dollars in contracts with federal agencies over the last two decades has reimbursed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for its faulty and potentially fraudulent translation work — a first in the agency’s history.

In the aftermath of a historic storm fueled by Typhoon Merbok — which pummeled Alaska’s West Coast last September — FEMA hired a California-based company called Accent on Languages to translate financial assistance information into two Alaska Native languages: Yugtun, the Central Yup’ik dialect, and Iñupiaq. Both Indigenous languages are spoken in Alaska today, though they were prohibited in the past by both the state and federal governments. Accent on Languages issued the refund after public radio station KYUK first reported that the company’s translations were nothing more than “word salad,” according to one Alaska Native languages expert.  FEMA’s federal contract with the company falls under a larger one with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The scandal highlights longstanding concerns about FEMA’s ability to provide emergency services to Indigenous communities and raises questions about the federal government’s ongoing reliance on non-local third-party translation services.


“It just adds to the frustration that Alaska Native people and Native Americans across the country have felt in terms of being either punished for speaking traditional language in school, or just ostracized over generations,” said Tara Sweeney, former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs under the Trump administration. Sweeney’s great-grandfather created the Iñupiaq alphabet. “It has an impact.”

As Typhoon Merbok was barreling toward Alaska, FEMA spokesperson Sharon Sanders said the agency knew it would need to provide language assistance. According to the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, about 10,000 people on Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta speak Central Yup’ik, while farther north, around 3,000 residents speak Iñupiaq. “I also knew that because they’re not commonly used, we may have issues with getting them in a timely manner back from our language translation services contractor,” said Sanders.

At one point, she said, Accent on Languages’ work was almost two weeks late. When the materials finally did arrive, they were useless, according to Tom Kempton, also a FEMA spokesperson. “When I first saw the Iñupiat ones, I was like, ‘What is this? It was all like hieroglyphic stuff,’” he said.

‘What is this? It was all like hieroglyphic stuff.’

A glossy trifold pamphlet that was supposed to be in Iñupiaq was written using the wrong alphabet. Accent on Languages filled the pamphlet’s pages with a smattering of Inuktitut letters — a language spoken by the Inuit of Northeastern Canada — though at least two Canadian Inuktitut speakers said they couldn’t make sense of it. And more than half a dozen translations that were supposed to be in Yugtun turned out instead to be a mishmash of phrases lifted from a book of folklore and Indigenous languages collected in the Russian Far East more than 80 years ago. “It didn’t take 30 seconds to realize, ‘Wow, these entire forms were copied verbatim,’’’ said Gary Holton, a linguist with decades of expertise in Alaska Native Languages who is familiar with the Russian texts from which the phrases were lifted.

While a government database shows that FEMA initially agreed to pay $27,800 for the work, Accent on Languages CEO Caroline Lee said in a statement that the contract expired before the full award was paid. According to Lee, FEMA paid the company $5,116.41 for “translations of multiple documents into several languages.” Lee said Accent issued a refund of $3,385.13, the amount billed for the Iñupiaq and Yup’ik translations. (In January, FEMA ended the contract with Accent on Languages. shows the agency holds a $20,000 contract with the company for a different project that doesn’t expire until August 2027.)

In a statement, Lee wrote that her company took on the work “not only to just merely help these languages survive, but to help these languages and cultures thrive.” In an email, Lee said she does have Native speakers on her staff, but did not specify which languages they speak. Days later, Lee revised the original statement to say that Accent now requires translators to sign affidavits and is creating a new review team.

For Kristi Cruz, an attorney with the Seattle-based Northwest Justice Project, the Accent case highlights problems with how to find and utilize contractors for translation work.      

“It brings up for me this tendency to want to use a one-stop shop for all of your language needs,” Cruz said. “This is just a clear example of the failure of that approach.”

Cruz and Holton added that there’s no identifiable quality control system. Potential contract fraud among translation service providers is difficult to detect. There is no formal certification system, and agency staff rarely double-check the final products. Often contractors either cannot or do not hire local first-language speakers to lead or stress-test their final products. Instead, they rely on faulty digital and non-community produced resources — such as a Soviet-era book of Russian folklore — to fill in the gaps.

“It brings up for me this tendency to want to use a one-stop shop for all of your language needs. This is just a clear example of the failure of that approach.”

“When mistakes are made, it’s often because the translator wasn’t properly vetted,” Cruz said, adding that agencies frequently rely on a bilingual staff member. “But we all know that being bilingual doesn’t necessarily make you a qualified translator or interpreter. And so, who’s testing or reviewing the adequacy of those translations? You also have folks using machine translation tools, and we find that those are often full of errors.”

FEMA isn’t the only federal agency that has struggled to provide adequate access to public information in Indigenous languages. Currently, the Election Assistance Commission’s translation of the federal mail-in ballot registration form — which was supposed to be in Yugtun — is instead in Siberian Yupik. The Alaska Native language is spoken by a tenth as many people as those who speak Yugtun, potentially underserving the population the commission aims to help. Kristen Muthig, a spokeswoman with the commission, acknowledged that Yup’ik is covered under the Voting Rights Act, but did not explain why the form was translated into the less widely used dialect, or how the Election Assistance Commission came to vet the company hired to do the work. She also would not say how much it paid for the work. In 2014, a U.S. District Court judge found that the state was not doing enough to assist voters who speak Alaska’s Indigenous languages first and ordered the state division of elections to translate all voting materials — even “I Voted” stickers — into two Alaska Native languages. Despite that ruling, federal elections observers in Alaska were still flagging language access problems last November.

These challenges also extend into the realm of public health. Many of the links to public service announcements translated into nearly a dozen Indigenous languages spoken nationwide are dysfunctional on the federal Department of Health and Social Services’ website. At the state level, Alaska’s Department of Health offers no information in any of Alaska’s Indigenous languages, though many of these documents are offered in Spanish, Russian and a handful of Asian and Pacific Islander languages. According to U.S. Census data, 15.6% of Alaskan residents speak a language other than English in the household. The data indicates that close to a third of that population speaks a language that is not Spanish, Indo-European, Asian or Pacific Islander, though it does not specify Indigenous languages.

Back on Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and farther North toward the state’s Arctic region, where Yup’ik and Iñupiaq are spoken daily, the apparent lack of effort and oversight has not gone unnoticed. Julia Jimmie, a translator for KYUK, grew up speaking Yup’ik. She’s seen poorly translated information before, but she never thought to dig into who created it or how. Accent on Languages, she said, “probably thought that no one would notice where they copied and pasted from. They probably thought Yup’ik and Iñupiaq were going extinct and they probably thought they wouldn’t be caught.” But she also sees a silver lining in the discovery of Accent and FEMA’s potentially fraudulent translations: “Now they know Yup’ik and Iñupiaq are widely spoken and widely used.”    

Emily Schwing is a reporter based in Alaska.

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