'It's a sign of respect': Non-Indigenous U of R PhD student writes thesis abstract in Cree

University of Regina grad student Aydin Torkabadi admits just finishing his PhD thesis in Industrial Engineering was a daunting task. Perhaps that's why his advisers thought he was a bit strange when he asked if he could translate his PhD abstract into Cree language.

International student encourages other grad students to do the same

Aydin Torkabadi uses Cree language books to help translate part of his Industrial Engineering thesis into Cree. (Nichole Huck/CBC )

Aydin Torkabadi says just finishing his PhD thesis in Industrial Engineering was a daunting task, so it's understandable that his advisers thought it a bit strange when he asked if he could translate his abstract into Cree. After all, the Iranian born University of Regina grad student speaks four different languages, but Cree is not one of them. 

It wasn't the first time Torkabadi has written an abstract in a local Indigenous language. 

Before he moved to Regina five years ago to pursue his PhD, he lived in Malaysia while he completed his Master's at the University of Technology in Malaysia. The program was in English, but required the abstract to be in the local language of Malay. 

"It's a sign of respect and a contribution to that language," he said. 

Torkabadi says staff from First Nations University were very welcoming and helpful when it came to translating his abstract into Cree. (Nichole Huck CBC )

Lessons from Malaysia 

Torkabadi said much of the language used in his thesis is very new academic terms and that translating enriches the local language being used.

Writing this abstract in Cree is a way to respect the language that was spoken here and the language of this land and these people.- Aydin   Torkabadi

He says the act of translating his work into Malay language was rewarding, but he hadn't thought to do a similar thing here in Canada until he attended a student science exhibition at the University of Regina last summer. 

He met some students who were applying engineering concepts to teepees. They had used Cree in some of their descriptions. Torkabadi was inspired.

"Writing this abstract in Cree is a way to respect the language that was spoken here and the language of this land and these people," said Torkabadi. 

While Torkabadi was excited about the idea and familiar with the process because of his previous experience, there was some reluctance in his faculty. 

"At the start they weren't very open to it or didn't have much understanding. They said you are making your work complicated, just focus on the engineering," explained Torkabadi. 

He said that once he started getting his work published, his advisers saw that his passion for the idea didn't hinder the science he was doing.

Engineering student partners with Cree Professor 

Author Solomon Ratt teaches Cree language classes at First Nations University. (CBC)

The next step was finding a Cree speaker who could help him. He approached Solomon Ratt, who teaches Cree language classes at the First Nations University of Canada.

"His first question was why? Why do you want to see me? Why do you want to do this? I could see he was a little bit shocked," Torkabadi said.

It was the first time the associate professor had ever had an Engineering student come to him with such a request. 

When you feel you are making a contribution and are adding something that didn't exist before, that makes you happy.- Aydin   Torkabadi

He also connected with Arzu Sardarli, a professor of Physics and Mathematics at the First Nations University of Canada's Prince Albert campus. Sardali is one of the authors of a brand new Cree language dictionary of Mathematical concepts. Torkabadi says the two professors were incredibly helpful and welcoming once they understand his motivations. 

Torkabadi describes the Cree language as incredibly flexible and innovative, he says part of the process was finding Cree terms that could be brought together to create a new scientific word. 

Torkabadi says the process made his PhD rewarding on an additional level. 

"A typical PhD thesis audience is very small because the subject matter is so specialized," said Torkabadi. He estimated there might only be 100 researchers in the world interested in his specialized work.

"When you feel you are making a contribution and are adding something that didn't exist before, that makes you happy," he said.

Torkabadi said he is hopeful the University of Regina will encourage other grad students to do the same. 

"This University is on Treaty 4 land and knowledge is being created in different fields so if everyone who is creating research does their abstract in Cree or another Indigenous language, that would enrich those languages a lot."

About the Author

Nichole Huck

Reporter

Nichole Huck is a producer CBC Radio Current Affairs. She has worked as a human rights journalist in Thailand and Ghana. Today, Huck has three children and is proud to call Regina home.