KNBA - KBC

Translating critical information into Iñupiaq, other languages crucial to their survival

Jul 20, 2021

Annauk  Olin and her mother, Maggie Pollock, translated information about the COVID-19 vaccine and the Census into Iñupiaq. 

The mother-and-daughter duo worked on a panel working to translate information into Iñupiaq for the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, or AKPIRG.

(Left to right) Annie Anaŋalutaq Conger, Richard Knownuk Atuk, Annauk Olin, Maggie Nuluqutaaq Pollock, Georgianne Oonak Merrill. (AKPRIG Panel for Iñupiaq translation) Photo by: Annauk Olin

Olin says they had to add some things along the way. 

“When we worked on Census material, there were words that we had to create, because it didn't necessarily apply to our everyday life and culture."  

The two worked on the project through a program for the Alaska Public Interest Research Group. The program translated information into languages such as Yup’ik, Gwich’in and Tlingit. 

The group hopes to include more languages into future translation efforts.

Pollock explains how the panel created new terms in Iñupiaq. 

"As a group, we all translated  each of the English words, or, what was supposed to be translated. And then everyone got to share their dialect, or their written words together. And we picked out and corrected as we went along. We found out that a lot of the modern terminology that our ancestors didn't use, so we had to create ... close to English versions."

Pollock and Olin urge the translation of information into Indigenous languages for Elders and youth to learn their languages. 

For Pollock, translating Iñupiaq has always been a necessity.

"Because a lot of the time the Elders that speak fluent Inupiaq, they won't understand it in English they have to be translated in the language to fully understand what they mean."

When the federal government makes little to no effort to translate critical information -- such as the census or COVID-19 vaccinations in Indigenous languages -- Pollock and Olin say Native people don’t get the facts they need.

Olin says that in 2020, the public interest research group stepped in to fill that void by translating Census material. 

To keep Indigenous people informed, in 2020, AKPIRG began the process to translate Census material and distribute it to Indigenous people.

“Unless we demand that our languages are translated into materials like the census, or COVID vaccinations, they won't get done. And it's on us, Alaska Native people, to hold our state and federal institutions accountable.”  

Pollock and Olin have focused on their Shishmaref dialect of Iñupiaq.

Olin recently graduated with a master’s in linguistics and says the dialect is known for having little written documentation of grammar, linguistics, or written curriculum. 

She was enrolled in the MIT  Indigenous Language Initiative Which allows for speakers of endangered languages to have a background in theoretical linguistics while also studying their respective languages.

Pollock worked as a language consultant for a field methods class at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where graduate students and two professors asked her grammatical information about her dialect.

At the end of the course, students wrote papers about what they learned. Olin plans to use to student’s papers as a starting point for writing a grammar for Shishmaref dialect.

"This is just the beginning. And I'm just really looking forward to the future where my son can go anywhere and have access to his language." 

For Pollock and Olin, advocating for federal and state translation, sharing linguistic knowledge with youth like Olin’s son, Daał, and writing down Indigenous dialects is what the future of Indigenous languages looks like.

Special thanks to Tripp Crouse for edits