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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Revis­its Aban­doned Movie Sets for Star Wars and Oth­er Clas­sic Films in North Africa

Star Wars Uncut: The Epic Fan Film

Star Wars as Silent Film

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

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