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Could Star Wars help preserve a Native American language?

How do you say “May the force be with you” in Navajo?

That was one of the tricky questions for the translation team responsible for dubbing one of the most popular movies of all time into the language. Members of the largest Native American tribe decided to adapt the 1977 classic as a way of preserving their language, also known as Diné.

The idea was conceived by Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, in Arizona,  13 years ago. Now the museum has joined forces with Lucasfilm to turn it into a reality.

Mr Wheeler thought the project would be an entertaining and engaging way to preserve their language, and make it more attractive to a younger generation.  He believes the film’s timeless theme of good versus evil resonates with people throughout the world, regardless of nationality, culture and language.

He told the Navajo Times: “By preserving the Navajo language and encouraging Navajo youth to learn their language, we will also be preserving Navajo culture.”

The museum issued a casting call via its website for fluent Navajo speakers – with good acting skills – to voice the characters of Princess Leia, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and others. They prepared an audio track to help actors who had difficulty reading the language.

According to the US Census data, around 170,000 people speak Navajo, with the Navajo Nation covering 27,000 square miles in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.  The language is classified as “vulnerable” by UNESCO in their Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.  This means most children learn to speak it, but it is often only used in restricted domains, such as at home. Popular culture such as TV, music, and films, is contributing to a growing use of English among young people.

Star Wars has already been dubbed into 40 languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese. But it is the first major Hollywood film to be available in a Native American language.

It’s not been an easy task for the five translators involved.  For one thing, many of the words used in the original script don’t have an English equivalent. They had to use their creativity to get round the challenges, sometimes using several Navajo words to explain a concept.

These include some of the best known phrases, including “May the force be with you”. A Navajo expert suggested two possible equivalents: “May you walk with great power” or “May you have the power within you”.

The auditions were held on May 3th and (very appropriately) May 4th, often celebrated by fans as “Star Wars” Day. Perhaps it’s a good thing this pun doesn’t work in other languages!

And fans won’t have long to wait to see the finished version, with a world premiere planned for July 4th. Let’s hope it manages to inspire more interest in the Navajo language – and encourage similar projects.

Whichever language you’re looking for translation services in, the Lingo24 team can help. Do get in touch to find out more.

Hazel Mollison

Hazel Mollison edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Italian and German at Cambridge University, she worked as a journalist for five years with regional and national newspapers. She enjoys writing about languages, translation, online marketing, and helping small businesses explore new opportunities.

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