Watching sci-fi in Navajo: ASU professor comments on 'Star Wars' translation for big screen
On April 27, 2013, CBS News reported an AP story on the upcoming Navajo version of the classic 1977 science fiction film, “Star Wars: A New Hope.” The project was commissioned by the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz., who approached Lucasfilm with the idea, according to the article.
Arizona State University professor of English Laura Tohe, a fluent speaker and translator of the Navajo language, or Diné bizaad, was interviewed about the challenges inherent in such a project.
Tohe notes that “galaxies, stars and outer space are not far off concepts for Navajos, who sometimes base ceremonies on moon phases and constellations,” and those ideas will translate directly.
"The Navajo people, like all indigenous tribes, were very observant of not only the world around them but the stars and constellations," Tohe said. "I associate that with science fiction in a lot of ways. I think they would be well aware of it in ‘Star Wars.’ It takes place up in the heavens."
However, the typical Jedi send-off phrase is a bit more problematic to render in Diné. “May the force be with you,’ might translate into ‘may you walk with great power,’ or ‘may you have the power within you.’"
The AP reported that Manuelito Wheeler, the director of the Navajo Nation Museum, said the dub in Navajo is an effort to revitalize and preserve the Navajo language, which is spoken by around 200,000 people. This is more than any other indigenous American language, but still on the decline overall.
The article also talked about precedents for the translation project: “Native languages on the big screen are a rarity but ‘Bambi’ was dubbed in the Arapaho language, and the cartoon series ‘The Berenstain Bears’ was translated into the Dakota and Lakota languages.”
The film will premiere on July 4 as part of the Navajo Nation’s festivities in Window Rock, Ariz.
The Department of English is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.