The Navajo Version Of ‘Star Wars’

By Nolan Moore on Friday, January 8, 2016
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“There was nothing you could have done, Luke, had you been there. You would have been killed, too, and the droids would be in the hands of the Empire.” —Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”

In A Nutshell

In 2013, an Arizona audience was treated to a special screening of Star Wars. What was so special about this particular version, you ask? Well, to encourage Navajo children to learn their traditional language, the Navajo Nation Museum translated George Lucas’s screenplay into Dine bizaad and brought in new voice actors to dub over the English-speaking stars. And as you might imagine, the Navajo translators had their work cut out for them.

The Whole Bushel

Everybody loves Star Wars. The box office numbers for The Force Awakens certainly prove that. Really, George Lucas’s space opera is one of those pop culture touchstones that has impacted people all over the globe, regardless of age or nationality. And that’s why Manuelito Wheeler thought the original 1977 film would be the perfect tool to help preserve his culture.

Manuelito Wheeler is the director of the Navajo Nation Museum, and he’s concerned about the future of the Navajo language (known as Dine bizaad). True, it’s the most commonly spoken language in New Mexico and Arizona (other than English and Spanish, of course). However, more and more Navajo children are learning English first, and fewer and fewer are following in their ancestors’ traditions. And that’s where Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia come in.

Manuelito Wheeler wanted to dub Star Wars in Dine bizaad with Navajo actors.

According to Wheeler, “This was an idea that I felt was a way to promote our culture, promote our language, a way to save our language.” As we mentioned, everybody loves Star Wars, and Wheeler was hoping that if he dubbed over one of the most popular films of all time, sci-fi fans would be encouraged to learn their own native language.

Wheeler spent three years patiently pitching his idea to Lucasfilm, and finally, the production company agreed. Star Wars would now become the first big Hollywood film to ever be released in Navajo. Of course, this whole translation thing was a bit tricky. After all, Star Wars is full of words that don’t exist in Dine bizaad. So a team of translators was brought in to figure out how to convey 20th-century concepts in an ancient language.

Fortunately, the five-person team came up with some pretty good ideas. For example, the word “droid” became “steel being,” the “lightsaber” was now a “light weapon,” and the name “R2-D2” was essentially turned into “short metal thing that’s alive.” When C-3PO advises his little robo-buddy to “hang on tight” before the Death Star run, the translators reworked that sequence to make it sound like the protocol droid was giving R2-D2 advice on how to stay on a rodeo bull.

According to the translators, one of the most difficult sequences to translate was the sequence on Yavin when the Rebels are discussing how to destroy the Death Star. It was also tricky getting the Navajo words to match the English-speaking mouths. But what about characters like Greedo, you ask? What happened whenever aliens spoke their weird extraterrestrial languages? Well, Wheeler and his crew kept the alien language on the soundtrack, but they added Navajo subtitles to the bottom of the screen.

Making things even trickier, the translators couldn’t just use any word they wanted. Some parts of the Navajo vocabulary are specifically reserved for religious rituals or particular time periods.

That’s why there were a few Navajo elders on the team to help bridge that generation and cultural gap. Faced with all these challenges, it’s all the more impressive to learn that the team translated the script in a mere 36 hours. And after casting Navajo actors to dub the characters, the film premiered on July 3, 2013 in Window Rock, Arizona. Tickets were free, and the screening was a smash.

Since the success of the Navajo Star Wars, the Navajo Nation Museum has teamed up with Disney to translate Finding Nemo. So to all the actors and translators working on this new Pixar project: May the Force be with you. Or as the Navajo would put it, “Ats’ahoniyee’ nil holoo doo.”

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
NPR: Translated Into Navajo, ‘Star Wars’ Will Be
Hollywood Reporter: ‘Star Wars’ Gets Dubbed into Navajo
The State Press: Alumna, four others dub Star Wars film into Navajo language
The Robot’s Voice: The 5 Coolest Things About the Navajo Translation of Star Wars
CBS News: “Finding Nemo” aims to help Navajo language stay afloat
Indian Country Today: Jedis and Indians: ‘Navajo Star Wars’ Premieres to a Packed House