Monday, July 26, 2021

Translating Physics into Blackfoot

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Culture, Society, Cosmology, Earth & Space Science

Ed Hessler

Sharon Yellowfly, Siksika Nation, translated the 2015 press release on the direct observation of gravitational waves into Blackfoot,translations that include 17 different languages.

Her son, Corey Gray is the lead technician at the Laser Interferometer Gravitatonal-Wave Observatory--LIGO (Hanford, WA), made the suggestion. Meredith Fore, writing for Symmetry, reports this story.The language is polysynthetic (agglutinative), i.e., " are made up of smaller word bits," that can stand alone. Linguists refer to these units as "morphemes." Yellowfly had to take some poetic with the press release, referring "to Einstein's theory" as "'beautiful plantings" (bisaatsinsiimaan).

Yellowfly noted in a lovely story in Atlas Obscura, "The most prominent challenge, of course, was how to translate 'Einstein’s theory of relativity.'" Yellowfly knew she only had to translate the phrase, not the theory itself. She chose bisaatsinsiimaan, or “beautiful plantings.” Bisaatsinsiimaan does not translate in any direct way to the theory itself, but rather acts as a metaphor for Einstein’s legacy. “This was a brilliant man who had this theory that hadn’t been proven,” Yellowfly explains. “The plantings of his ideas would be harvested by people later on, on so many different levels.”  

As a child, Yellowfoot was forced to attend a Christian boarding school "where she was separated from her family and her culture and where she was physically punished for speaking her own language." As a young adult she began "copying down [Blackfoot] words 'she heard from her parents and elders.'" Her intent was "to collect words on paper for her children. But soon she had the idea to do more. Now, "several decades later, her dictionary has grown quite large."

Fore includes a section on endangered languages and some efforts helping to make them thrive, including bringing endangered languages into regular use: Cartoons, video games, movies, the broadcast of a hockey game in two dialects.

Fore's essay includes a short video (2m 10s) of Blackfoot translations of physics terms. At the top is an image of Yellowfoot and her son standing near one of the arms of the apparatus at the LIGO site in Hanover. The story in Atlas Obscura (above) by Sabrina Imbler is more detailed and describes how Yellowfoot did the translation, details about her life including her early education, a photograph at the top showing her and her son at a high level physics conference where she asked physicists involved in LIGO to sign a commemorative T-shirt. Gray and Yellowfoot "have worked together to spread awareness of gravitational wave astronomy to Blackfoot speakers and introduce members of the scientific community to them.

"Though Gray has always considered himself a mama’s boy, this project has brought the two even closer together. They text often, about Gray’s work and random vocabulary questions that pop up as he tries to improve his grasp of the language. “'As I’m getting older, I don’t have to be as much of a disciplinarian,'" Yellowfly says. “'So Corey now feels like a child who is also my friend.'”

In this video (14m 42s) Corey Gray describes his work, comments about the translation and then his mother reads the entire press release in Sikiska (Blackfoot). Be sure to listen to some of it.

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