John Active On Translating Alaska's Primary Ballot For Yup'ik Speakers

Aug 15, 2016

John Active live translating in the KYUK Talk Line studio.
Credit Geraldine Brink / KYUK

Tomorrow is Alaska’s Primary Election. Citizens across the state will head to the polls to vote for both national and state senators and representatives. In Bethel, where many people speak Yup'ik as a first language, those polls will have translators to explain the ballot. One of those translators you’ve heard for decades on KYUK: John Active. KYUK talked with Active about what he does on election day and why it matters.

KYUK: How long do you spend preparing to translate the ballot?

Active: Well, I keep looking at it throughout the day to make sure I got it down pat, because I translate for elders, and sometimes villagers are here, too, who’re voting absentee ballots or question ballots, and then I’ll translate for them.

KYUK: So how do they protect voter privacy? Is it that you explain the ballot in Yupik before someone enters the ballot box?

Active: I read what’s printed on this ballot that’s written in the Yup'ik language, and then sometimes they’ll ask me, "Who should I vote for?" And I’ll say, "I can’t tell you. You’ve got to make up your own mind. You have to vote for who you want, whoever you choose.”

KYUK: And then they go by themselves into the ballot…

Active: No, no. I go in with them. I have to read the ballot for them, and then they’ll hear what I say, and then of course, they’ll vote for whoever they want.

KYUK: So you watch them mark whoever they’re voting for?

Active: Yeah, in case they make a mistake. You can’t put an X on the ballot. You have to fill in the oval with the black ink pen.

KYUK: How many years have you been helping translate the ballots in Bethel?

Active: Must be about five years up to now. Some of the elections are really tough when they have a lot of propositions and things, and you have a lot to read. And sometimes the elders don’t understand. So we do a little explaining about what’s on the ballot. Then when they understand it, then they’ll vote whichever way they want.

KYUK: Do you feel like what you’re doing is valuable?

Active: Of course I do! Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. It’s a long day: 6:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night. I really enjoy it. I enjoy meeting all the people that I haven’t seen in a while when they come to vote, and I’m always encouraging the elders especially to vote.

KYUK: And is there anything on this ballot that’s tricky to translate?

Active: No, this time it’s really easy. Looks like we’re going to be done early.

KYUK: And do you always vote on election day?

Active: I always do. I make sure I vote first, because I ain’t going to have time for the rest of the day, because I'll be helping translate.

KYUK: John, thank you.

Active: Quyana.

You can vote tomorrow at two places in Bethel: the Cultural Center and the LKSD Board Room. Translators will be available at both sites. The polls open at 7 a.m., and close at 8 p.m.