When I was assigned the management of a translation project of healthcare summaries from English into Navajo, I was a bit nervous and excited at the same time. After many years of studying Spanish and traveling through Latin America, I have a special interest in and affinity toward indigenous cultures and peoples of the Americas, but I knew little about the Navajo Nation.
The plight of Native North Americans is not much different from the plight of indigenous peoples of Latin America. Over 300,000 people live in the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. It is among the largest tribal governments and Indian reservations in the United States, yet many people still lack running water, electricity, and telephones. These are the kinds of issues I encountered when I worked as a teaching volunteer in rural Chile. It is hard to believe that I am speaking about a territory within the continental U.S.
The challenges of working with the Navajo people are many. Firstly, communication is difficult when you are contacting people in a rural zone with little infrastructure. If your contact is privileged to have a cell phone, their service will be spotty at best. When heating your home and finding water are major issues, doing business with a language service provider in Philadelphia may not be a priority. Although the Navajo people are from a culture that aims to please, they do not always have the same kind of availability as other linguists because they sometimes face bigger concerns.
In its obituary of the last Navajo code talker from World War II, The Economist took the opportunity to explain just how linguistically unique Navajo really is.
[It is] part … of a language family so complicated that linguistics needs special terms to describe it. Verbs do most of the work, agglutinated with suffixes and prefixes, in seven modes (including the usitative, iterative and optative), 12 aspects, such as the semelfactive (a half-completed action), and ten sub-aspects, including the completive and the semeliterative (a single repetition). It has four combinations of tones, plus glottal and aspirated stops. A shift in any of them can change a word’s meaning completely.
Even if you are familiar with a few of the world’s major languages, you still can’t really appreciate the complexity of Navajo.
Reading and writing
To make things more complicated, Navajo is also a language that is generally not written. It was not until 1939 that the first standard Navajo alphabet, consisting of Latin characters and diacritics, was finished, just in time for the U.S. government to use the language as a code–one that even the Japanese could not crack—in World War II. However, the writing system, developed by the U.S. government, was widely distrusted and even today most skilled speakers cannot read or write. The elders who dominate the language cannot put it to paper, so they must work with language professors and the younger generation, who are taught the writing system in some schools, in order to convey information in writing—writing that can only be understood by the older generation if read aloud.
Although the Affordable Care Act has offered special subsidies and benefits to the Navajo people, exempting them from tax penalties and requiring the translation of benefit summaries, healthcare is still not a topic that is widely discussed or understood in the Navajo Nation. When healthcare terminology does not exist in your language it must be invented. Consistency is nearly impossible, and something as simple as an “X-Ray” may need to be translated as “the picture of the bones inside your body.”
Current events added an even greater challenge to our translation project. While I was managing the project, Navajo Nation Election Day was drawing near. All eyes were on candidate Chris Deschene, who was challenged for noncompliance with the Navajo law that requires presidential candidates to be fluent in the language. A debate ensued, as many of Deschene’s supporters requested to change the law, while Navajo linguists and supporters of opponent Dr. Joe Shirley, Jr. began fighting to protect the law. Ultimately, Deschene was removed from the ballot, and elections were halted, to be rescheduled at a later date. Our contacts were engrossed in and distracted by this controversy.
Despite the obstacles, the MTM Linguasoft team came through with the translation, thanks to the help of a language professor and interpreter living several miles off the reservation who has now become our “go-to” resource for all things Navajo.
- “Navajo Nation Presidential Candidate Suspends Campaign, NPR Blog (Oct 30 2014)
- “Chester Nez, the last of America’s Navajo code-talkers, died on June 4th aged 93,” The Economist (June 21, 2014)
- “For Many Navajo, A Visit From The ‘Water Lady’ Is A Refreshing Sight,” NPR Blog (Jan 6 2015)
- “Navajo Homes Have Electricity For the First Time,” The Wire (April 13, 2014)