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The Force Is With The Navajo: 'Star Wars' Gets A New Translation

Originally published on Wed July 3, 2013 8:26 pm

If you've ever wondered how to say "May the Force be with you" in Navajo, you're in luck. On July 3, a new translation of Star Wars will be unveiled on the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona. The 1977 classic has been translated into many languages, and the latest effort is the brainchild of Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.

"We needed a way to preserve our culture," Wheeler tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "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. And so, that's when the idea of translating a major movie into the Navajo language came up."


Interview Highlights

On why a well-known movie is perfect for a Navajo translation

"I'm not fluent in Navajo. I grew up on the Navajo Nation, around the Navajo language; both my parents speak Navajo, yet I don't. And there are thousands and thousands of us out there that are in that same situation. So, when you watch a movie like Star Wars where you pretty much already know many of the famous phrases from it and then you hear it in Navajo, that's the connection right there."

On the descriptive nature of the Navajo language

"We had a team of five translators and in my mind they pulled off a miracle. You know, there was some talk out there ... like, 'How are you gonna say robot because there's no word for robot in Navajo?' It's such a powerful language, that it's very descriptive, very descriptive. If you ask for an object in Navajo you will know you'll be getting a round object, you'll be getting a skinny, soft object, you'll be getting a flat rigid object. So, the trick was choosing from the variety of definitions that the group came up with. So for example: 'robot.' It's a thinking machine; a machine that thinks for itself."

On the upcoming premiere

"The premiere sponsor that came forward was Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation. They do that Navajo Nation Fair and the Fourth of July fair. So, I will premiere it at the Fourth of July celebration on July 3. We have a grandstand there on the fairgrounds and we are having a screen built on a semi-flatbed trailer. So, when we're ready we'll drive that out and set up chairs ... and have popcorn for as many as we can make popcorn for."

On how to say 'May the Force be with you' in Navajo

"That's been the No. 1 question being asked of me since I started this project. But we're not going to give out that famous phrase. Come to the movie on July 3 and you'll find out. I'll save you a seat right up front, so come over."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Fans of "Star Wars" know that this is a clip of Princess Leia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STAR WARS")

CARRIE FISHER: (as Princess Leia) Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.

SIEGEL: The 1977 movie has been translated into many languages, and on July 3, you'll be able to hear Princess Leia in this language.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STAR WARS")

CLARISSA YAZZIE: (as Princess Leia) (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: That is Navajo. And translating the movie into Navajo is the brainchild of Manuelito Wheeler, who's director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona. Mr. Wheeler joins us now from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Welcome to the program.

MANUELITO WHEELER: (Foreign language spoken) which means hello, greetings in the Navajo language.

SIEGEL: Well, what gave you the idea to translate "Star Wars" into Navajo?

WHEELER: Well, we needed a way to preserve our culture. Language is at the core of a culture. I felt we needed a more contemporary way to reach, not just young people but the population in general. And so that's when the idea of translating a major movie into the Navajo language came up.

SIEGEL: So the point here is the safe kids go to see "Star Wars" dubbed into Navajo, it's very possible that they already know the movie in English and would understand it perfectly well that way.

WHEELER: Absolutely. And that's where I connect to this process as well because I'm not fluent in Navajo. I grew up on the Navajo Nation, around the Navajo language; both my parents speak Navajo, yet I don't. And there are thousands and thousands of us out there that are in that same situation. So when you watch a movie like "Star Wars" where you pretty much already know many of the famous phrases from it and then you hear it in Navajo, that's the connection right there.

SIEGEL: We learned, by the way, in that clip how to say Obi-Wan Kenobi in Navajo. It's obviously Obi-Wan Kenobi.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: How do you say may the force be with you in Navajo?

WHEELER: That's the number question being asked of me since I started this project, but we're not going to give out that famous phrase. Come to the movie on July 3, and you'll find out. I'll save you a seat right up front. So come over.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: How many people worked on the translation?

WHEELER: We had a team of five translators, and in my mind, they pulled off a miracle. You know, there was some talk about - out there, like, how are you going to say robot because there's no word for robot in Navajo? It's such a powerful language that it's very descriptive, very descriptive. If you ask for an object in Navajo, you will know you'll be getting a round object, you'll be getting a skinny, soft object, you'll be getting a flat rigid object. So the trick was choosing from the variety of definitions that the group came up with. So for example, robot, it's a thinking machine, a machine that thinks for itself.

SIEGEL: This was the movie that gave us droid, wasn't it? It was - made it a popular word. You - do you just go with droid or do have to come up with a Navajo word for droid?

WHEELER: No. We came up with words for droid...

SIEGEL: Really.

WHEELER: ...and come to July 3, and you'll see.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: OK. You're giving away very little here. Well, on July 3, when the secrets of translation will be out, and when you show the Navajo-dubbed version of - what actually will happen? Will there be - is there a particular big theater where it's going to be? Are people going to...

WHEELER: No, no. The premiere sponsor that came forward was Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation. They do the Navajo Nation Fair and the Fourth of July fair. So, I will premiere it at the Fourth of July celebration on July 3. We have a grandstand there on the fairgrounds, and we are having a screen built on a semi-flatbed trailer. So when we're ready, we'll drive that out and set up chairs, and the grandstands are right there and have popcorn for as many as we can make popcorn for.

SIEGEL: Mr. Wheeler, thank you very much for talking with us.

WHEELER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Manuelito Wheeler, who's director of the Navajo Nation Museum. On July 3, they'll unveil a new version of "Star Wars" on the Navajo nation Indian reservation in Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.