Star Wars Gets Dubbed into Navajo: a Fun Way to Preserve and Teach a Fading Language

On July 10, Indian Country Today announced the first film ever dubbed in the Navajo (or Dine’) language, with the headline “Jedis and Indians!” Yes, it’s a 35-year-old movie that’s been digitally enhanced and taken on new meaning (some would say cheapened) in the light of the three “prequels,” but it’s a film that will never lose its cultural cachet as a touchstone for several generations of movie lovers. I’m talking of course, about the first Star Wars (or Episode IV: A New Hope). Despite the fact that the film has been dubbed into hundreds of languages for billions of non-English speakers, this event is entirely different—the viewers of the Navajo Star Wars are all native English speakers who have understood and loved the original perfectly well.

Rather than introducing the film to a new audience, the point of this exercise is to bring a very popular, familiar piece of media to an audience eager to connect with their fading traditional language. Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Arizona, conceived of the project to preserve the language for generations, including his own, who are losing touch with Dine’. In the short video above, watch Wheeler and the voice actors and translators discuss the project’s success in inspiring young people to speak more Navajo. Wheeler told NPR’s All Things Considered, “Language is at the core of a culture. And I felt we needed a more contemporary way to reach not just young people but the population in general.” He also said that he is not fluent and that “there are thousands and thousands of us out there that are in that same situation.”

So what better way to introduce those thousands to the fine complexities of Navajo than with a movie almost everyone knows all the dialogue to? The translation was not without its challenges. The team of five translators had to find ways to convey concepts unfamiliar to the language, such as “robot,” which was translated to the equivalent of “a machine that thinks for itself.” The newly-dubbed film’s premier at a Window Rock, Arizona rodeo stadium thrilled the small crowd of 200 people. As Indian Country Today reports, the crowd “erupted in cheers and screams when they heard familiar characters like C-3PO and Darth Vader delivering classic dialogue in their beloved Dine’ language.” And as Wheeler puts it above, “people were very engaged without feeling like they were in a lesson.” As anyone who’s studied languages—their own or others—knows, pop culture nearly always trumps lectures and workbooks.

Speaking of learning languages, don’t miss our handy collection: Learn 46 Languages Online for Free: Spanish, English, Chinese & More. And if anyone knows of free online Dine’ lessons, let us know and we’ll happily add them to the list.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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