Why Taking On Einstein Became A Native American Translator's Labor Of Love On April 1, astronomers will start two huge machines and continue hunting for ripples in space-time. One scientist gets his mom to translate news of each discovery into her native language, Blackfoot.
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How A Cosmic Collision Sparked A Native American Translator's Labor Of Love

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How A Cosmic Collision Sparked A Native American Translator's Labor Of Love

How A Cosmic Collision Sparked A Native American Translator's Labor Of Love

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KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:

Tomorrow, scientists will officially restart their search for gravitational waves after spending over a year improving the massive machines used to detect them. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on how this cutting-edge field of science is connected to a Native American language - Blackfoot.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein more than a century ago. They're like the ripples you see in a pond when you toss a pebble in, only these waves move through spacetime, the very fabric of the universe. They're created by powerful collisions like two black holes smashing together. And the first detection in 2015 made history.

COREY GRAY: It was just a life-changing experience when we had that first detection.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Corey Gray, a physicist who works at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory in Washington state. He says this discovery involved over a thousand people from around the world, so before the amazing first detection was publicly unveiled, colleagues started translating the press release into about 20 major languages - Russian, French, Spanish.

GRAY: I thought, whoa - wouldn't it be just really cool if we could get this translated into an indigenous language?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like Blackfoot, also called Siksika. It's spoken by only a few thousand people. Gray's mom is one of them, even though when she grew up, the U.S. and Canadian governments were actively working to stamp out native languages.

GRAY: By taking kids away from their parents and sending them to boarding schools. So my mom is a survivor of that.

SHARON YELLOWFLY: Boarding schools were set up to assimilate children.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's his mom, Sharon Yellowfly.

YELLOWFLY: And the purpose of this assimilation was to get rid of our language, the customs, the traditions - you know, everything that we grew up with.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: At these schools, speaking Blackfoot got kids punished. Corey Gray says that's why he doesn't really speak his family's language and why he wanted to see it represented in a major historic event. Yellowfly says when her son asked her to translate this gravitational wave announcement...

YELLOWFLY: My emotions were all over the place. It was a shock (laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She agreed to try with the help of relatives. She had to create new words for heavy scientific terms like general theory of relativity.

YELLOWFLY: And the word that I came up with that was bisaatsinsiiman (ph). And the translation for that is beautiful plantings.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her son recorded her reading the final translation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YELLOWFLY: (Speaking Blackfoot) Einstein (speaking Blackfoot).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Corey Gray understands more Blackfoot than he can say, but he knows what his mom came up with for gravitational waves - or stick-together waves, as she translated it.

GRAY: For that one, I could kind of say it. And I'm probably strangling it. But for that, it's abuduuxbiisii obigimskAAsts (ph).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He loved sharing this with younger people.

GRAY: That's the thing. I'm really excited about just to be able to go and see indigenous youth and youth from my tribe just tell me there is a connection with our language to Einstein now.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Meanwhile, as scientists keep detecting more gravitational waves from colliding black holes or neutron stars, his mom continues to translate the press releases.

YELLOWFLY: I guess I will do these as long as Corey wants me to.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And doing this has renewed her interest in another project - writing a Blackfoot dictionary. Yellowfly started jotting down words at the age of 23 after she noticed kids speaking English more and more. For years, her parents were her main source of words. She stopped working on her dictionary when they died, but now she says she needs to finish it for the next generation.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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