‘Your Husband is a Polar Bear, Skinny’: FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Translation Blunder
Alaska recently experienced a typhoon that caused tidal surges and high winds. But if you were an Alaskan native looking for federal aid, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) response turned out to be literal nonsense. It’s a gaffe that highlights the need for common sense communication after a disaster.
As a response to Typhoon Merbok, which impacted some 21,000 Alaskan residents, FEMA had hired a California company to translate documents into Inupiaq, Yup’ik and other Indigenous languages for aid purposes. But users found baffling phrases like “Tomorrow he will go hunting very early, and will (bring) nothing” and “Your husband is a polar bear, skinny.”
The word “Alaska” was also randomly inserted into sentences. Other messages were written in Inuktitut, a language spoken in northern Canada.
Fortunately, FEMA was made aware of the errors and fired the company responsible, and no one was denied aid because of the errors.
About 1,300 people have been approved for FEMA assistance, which has paid out around $6.5 million. The damage is currently estimated at more than $28 million.
But area officials have pushed for better reforms and closer attention to detail.
“These government contracting translators have certainly taken advantage of the system, and they have had a profound impact, in my opinion, on vulnerable communities,” Tara Sweeney told the Associated Press. Sweeney is an Inupiaq who served as an assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Interior Department. Her great-grandfather, Roy Ahmaogak, invented the Inupiaq alphabet more than a half-century ago.