Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Some voting machines will speak Navajo this election

Whether you’re with the “long-ear planning group” or the “animal-that-ropes-with-his-nose planning group,” this year’s election will prove to be a little more aurally interesting than in the past.

For the first time, spoken Navajo translations of the ballot will be available on voting machines that allow voters to select their choices on a screen.

Sounds easy enough. But not really.

“Some words, of course, are very hard to translate into the Navajo language, like general obligation bond, constitutional amendment,” said Zane James, Native American election coordinator with the Secretary of State’s Office. “Citizenship was one word I was thinking about for a while. How do you fully translate that?”

Other terms, such as Democratic Party and Republican Party, are easier – just describe the animals used to represent each party, as has been done for years, James said.

But translate those Navajo words back into English, and the Democrats and their donkey become the “long-ear planning group,” James said, noting that such reverse translations are a subjective exercise. The Republicans and their elephant become the “animal-that-ropes-with-his-nose planning group.”

Complicating English-to-Navajo translation are the numerous variations in the American Indian languages, said Kimmeth Yazzie, program project specialist with the Navajo Nation Election Administration.

To avoid confusion, coming up with a common vocabulary for elections is a joint effort of Navajo speakers and election officials from the three states where the Navajo Nation can be found: New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

They began assembling a booklet of translations in the late 1980s, Yazzie said. A final version came out a few years ago. It was used to guide the translation being supplied by James.

“We thought it (the booklet) was going to be simple – just identifying words and coming up with meanings, but when we actually got down to it, Navajo is a big area, and people in Alamo speak a little different Navajo than we do here on the reservation,” Yazzie said.

“It’s (also) like that across the reservation, from north to south, east to west. We have to come up with words that people can identify with right there in their area.”

The translations undergo continual updating, much of which occurs at quarterly meetings, he said. The next meeting is in December.

Since the Navajo Nation began assembling the booklet, Yazzie has seen other tribes grow interested in doing the same.

In addition to the Navajo recordings, Navajo translators will be on hand – as they have in the past – at certain polling stations for New Mexico’s elections on Nov. 7.

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