The 5 Coolest Things About the Navajo Translation of Star Wars


I recently had the privilege of attending the public California premiere of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope at the 38th Annual American Indian Film Festival. What made this a premiere, of course, is the fact that it was recently translated and redubbed into the Navajo Language, with a full voice cast of Navajo speakers. In fact, it’s the first time that any major motion picture has been translated into an American Indian language. (I don’t know why it took until 2013, but at least the ball is finally rolling.)

Other than the English language being translated into Navajo – and that was done seamlessly – nothing else about the movie has been changed: the music and sound effects are all the same, CGI Jabba still speaks Huttese, and Greedo still speaks whatever Greedo speaks, though they’re both also subtitled into Navajo at the bottom of the screen.

It was a remarkable experience, and one that’s long overdue: Star Wars is the first major motion picture to be translated into Navajo, and the producers of the translation say it will not be the last. Here are some things you should know about it.

1. This is Not Turkish Star Trek. Or Turkish Star Wars, For that Matter.

Unlike those high-larious foreign remakes of our favorite sci-fi properties from the seventies, the Navajo Star Wars is an official, fully legal redubbing of the original film. (Well, of the most recent version of the film, the one on the Blu-ray. I think we can reasonably assume that doing the 1977 theatrical cut was not a realistic option, even if they wanted to.) Intended as a means of both preserving the language and helping young people to learn it via one of the most familiar movies of all time, the project was initiated by Manuelito Wheeler of the Navajo Nation Museum, and done with the blessing of Lucasfilm – who, no doubt having warehouses full of the stuff, provided the Museum with plenty of Star War swag to give away – as well as 20th Century Fox, and perhaps most importantly, the good people at Deluxe, who provided a great deal of technical assistance without interfering in the creative process. (More on them shortly.) But, 90% of the actual funding came from within the Navajo Nation.

During the Q&A, a teenager asked: “Did you have to deal with Lucasfilm or Disney?”

Wheeler: “Lucasfilm.”

Teenager: “Good!”

2. This Was Done Quickly By People Who Knew What They Were Doing.

According to Wheeler’s Q&A at the screening, the project came together rather quickly – give or take the decade and a half of persistence it required up until that point – in that they began translating the script into Navajo on April 15, 2013, and the finished product had its first screening on July 3. Vrooom! Wheeler says the actual translation process itself only took about 36 hours, using five translators working in several different dialects. (The movie switches freely between dialects, not assigning any particular dialect to given race in the movie.) The most difficult part to translate, not unsurprisingly, was the “here’s how we’re going to blow up the Death Star” briefing.

Besides trying to make sense of George Lucas’s infamously senseless dialogue, the other tricky part was the problem of “adaptation” – meaning, they had to first translate the dialogue from English into Navajo, and then they had to tweak the dialogue so the voices more or less matched the lip movements. Wheeler admitted that a “little bit of liberty” had to be taken to the translation to make it work.

But they made the translation work, and auditions for the voice talent began in early May. Here’s a story on it from KOAT, Albuquerque’s news leader.

3. Everyone of Every Gender Loves Star Wars.

I noticed while standing in line that there were more women than men, and the ratio of people wearing Star Wars shirts about fifty-fifty. Appropriately enough, Wheeler said that of the 160 people who auditioned, over half were women vying for the Princess Leia role. (No love for Aunt Beru, as usual.)

Ultimately, there were seven primary voice actors, and more than 20 secondary voice actors. And of those 80+ women who didn’t get the Princess Leia role – and the actress who did get the part, Clarissa Yazzie, absolutely nailed it – one at least got to do the eternally ignored Aunt Beru, and the other got C-3PO.

4. It All Binds Together.

As Wheeler described it, Deluxe came out to the Navajo Nation, and the actual recording and technical work took place at Knifewing Studios in Gallup, NM. Knifewing is already a fully equipped studio, so Deluxe just had to bring some computers and a few more bits of dubbing equipment along, and the result was a completely professional job, done on Knifewing’s own terms. And it sounds professional, too. Even though someone familiar with Star Wars is never not aware that it’s been re-dubbed, there’s nothing sloppy about the redubbing. (Boba Fett’s silent appearance was very popular, because if there’s one that that transcends cultures even more than Star Wars as as whole, it’s Fett-love.)

There’s been little actual footage of the translated film released, which is quite reasonable – it’s only been screened about twenty times so far, and only half of those have been, as Wheeler put it, “off the Rez” – but Indian Country Today covered the July 3 premiere. It includes a clip of one of the most important moments of the film, Princess Leia’s closeup as she speaks to Darth Vader, the first scene in which there are visible lip movements accompanying a voice.

It’s a different performance; they’re all different performances by design, and many of the familiar tics – for example, Hamill’s iconic “power converters!” whine – are not replicated. And that’s for the best, I think. It’s jarring to those of us who know the movie by heart and/or have no familiarity with Navajo, but then again, this wasn’t done for us. We’re welcome to watch it and enjoy it, of course, and I recommend you do so, but you have to go into it understanding that it’s a slightly different take on this material.

Unlike the July 3 premiere seen above, it was shown at the American Indian Film Festival with the original English subtitles, and I kind of wish it hadn’t been; it might have been a more immersive experience all around without the English subtitles as a crutch. In fact, they weren’t so much a crutch as a distraction, because I found myself distracted too much by just how horrible the dialog is.

I’m hardly the first person to point out that George Lucas writes lousy dialog (that would be Harrison Ford with his possibly apocryphal “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it”), but good lord, the words at the bottom of the screen were bad. Wheeler said that the English subtitles were provided by Lucasfilm and presumably not something that could be changed, which is a shame. On the one hand, I can’t help thinking that as a means of helping people learn Navajo, it would be necessary for the English subtitles to match the Navajo speech as much as possible. On the other hand, I know absolutely nothing whatsoever about learning a language, be it Navajo or any other.

But whether the English subtitles are on or not, it’s worth seeing.

5. The Code Talkers Come Back Around.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy used the Navajo language in their radio transmissions in the Pacific, based on the belief that it “answered the military requirement for an undecipherable code because Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity,” and “its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training.” And they were right – the Japanese never managed to break the code. The Code Talkers’ Dictionary was declassified not long after the war, and is an interesting read if you’re into that sort of thing.

It was observed during the Q&A that the radio transmissions during the Battle of Yavin were reminiscent of the Code Talkers, and that was really struck me what an achievement this translation was. A language that was once utilized for its alienness was now part of the official history of one of the most popular movies of all time. (And not even being spoken by the aliens in the movie!)

Upcoming screenings of the Navajo Star Wars will most likely be announced on the Navajo Nation Museum‘s Facebook page, and they’re always free, so if you can see it on the big screen with a crowd, be sure to check it out.

Previously by Sherilyn Connelly:

The Nineteen Coolest Illustrations from Star Trek Fanzines

The 9 Coolest Sci-Fi Read-Along Records from the 70s and 80s

15 Awesomely Nerdy Behind-the-Scenes Documentaries You Can Watch for Free Right Now

The Eight Funniest Recurring Themes in the Original Star Wars Trading Cards

The Six Coolest Things In Starlog #001: The Voyage in Retro-Nerdery Begins

Ten Amazingly Strange Celebrity Hotlines of the 1980s