How to translate astrophysical phenomena into the Blackfoot language

Corey Gray is an astrophysicist, and the lead operator at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) at the California Institute of Technology in Washington State. He's also a member of the Blackfoot nation through his mother, Sharon Yellowfly. Yellowfly grew up in Alberta, Canada, where she lived through brutal state-run boarding schools designed to assimilate indigenous peoples and beat their native languages out of them.

As a result, Gray himself did not grow up speaking Siksika (the language of the Blackfoot people). But in 2015, when he realized that his field was on the verge of a breakthrough in proving the existence of the Einstein-theorized gravitational waves, he saw an opportunity. As NPR explained at the time:

People from around the world were involved in the discovery. So before it was publicly announced, colleagues started translating the press release into about 20 major languages, such as Russian, French and Spanish.

"I thought, 'Whoa, wouldn't it be just really cool if we could get this translated into an indigenous language?' " Gray recalls.

Gray recruited his mother to help in the translation — which you can see above — but it wasn't entirely easy:

She had to create new words for weighty scientific terms such as Einstein's general theory of relativity. That one she translated into a word, "bisaatsinsiimaan," that means Einstein's "beautiful plantings."

Gravitational waves became "they stick together waves," or "Abuduuxbiisii o?bigimskAAsts."

Other words, such as "black hole" could be directly translated using the Blackfoot, or Siksika, words for "black" and "hole," or "sigooxgiya."

Both NPR and Atlas Obscura have some cool details about the translation process, and what it means within the larger struggle for language rights across the world.

How A Cosmic Collision Sparked A Native American Translator's Labor Of Love [Nell Greenfieldboyce / NPR]

Meet the Mother-Son Duo Translating Astrophysics Into Blackfoot [Sabrina Imbler / Atlas Obscura]