FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — In the new translation of “Star Wars,” Darth Vader is Luke’s bizhe’e.
The classic 1977 film that launched a science fiction empire and revealed the force within a farm boy who battles evil has been dubbed in Japanese, French, Spanish and about a dozen other languages. Add Navajo to the list.
Manuelito Wheeler, the director of the Navajo Nation Museum who reached out to Lucasfilm Ltd. with the idea, has a very good feeling about this. He sees it as entertaining, educational and a way to preserve the Navajo language at a time when fewer tribal members are speaking it.
“That’s the beauty of what we’re doing; we’re teaching Navajo language to anybody who wants to learn the Navajo language,” Wheeler said. “I find that very rewarding and somewhat ironic. We went from a country that wanted to limit our language, to the Navajo language saving our country through Code Talkers, to our language being part of a major motion picture.”
Native languages on the big screen are a rarity. Independent films and documentaries at film festivals have been in the tongue of American Indian tribes. Yet it’s far less common to see it done in mainstream movies and shown in commercial theaters. “Bambi” was dubbed in the Arapaho language, and the cartoon series “The Berenstain Bears” was translated into the Dakota and Lakota languages.
“There’s a little bit of precedent but nothing like ‘Star Wars’ in the Navajo language,” said Michael Smith, director of the American Indian Film Institute and a member of the Sioux Tribe of Montana.
A team of five Navajo speakers spent 36 hours translating the script for “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” and now they’re looking for fluent Navajo speakers to fill some two dozen roles. Casting calls are scheduled Monday in Burbank, Calif., and May 3 and 4 — the unofficial “Star Wars” holiday — at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.
Potential actors shouldn’t worry if they don’t sound exactly like Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, only that they have Princess Leia’s spunk and fire or Han Solo’s daring, bad-boy-next-door attitude. Chewbacca and R2D2 will keep the language they speak in the Navajo version, and technical effects will be applied to Darth Vader and C-3PO so they sound like the originals, said Shana Priesz, senior director of localization for Deluxe, the studio overseeing the dubbing.
“Having the voice match isn’t as much as I want someone who can deliver the lines,” she said.
Wheeler and William Nakai, one of the translators, declined to say how some catch phrases or sci-fi jargon in the movie might carry over into Navajo. But Laura Tohe, a fluent Navajo speaker and English professor at Arizona State University said the translation process could have been similar to what Navajo Code Talkers did in coming up with communication that confounded the Japanese during World War II.
The Code Talkers recruited from the Navajo Nation were unfamiliar with things like grenades, observation planes, tanks and dive-bombers. So they thought of something on the reservation that had similar qualities. Grenades became potatoes, observation planes became owls, tanks became tortoises and so on.
“May the force be with you,” might translate into “may you walk with great power,” or “may you have the power within you,” she said. It also might include a reference to mountains, which are a source of strength for the Navajo people.
Galaxies, stars and outer space are not far off concepts for Navajos, who sometimes base ceremonies on moon phases and constellations, Tohe said. Those words would translate directly.
“The Navajo people, like all indigenous tribes, were very observant of not only the world around them but the stars and constellations,” she said. “I associate that with science fiction in a lot of ways. I think they would be well aware of it in “Star Wars,” it takes place up in the heavens.”
The first opportunity to see the film in Navajo will be during the tribe’s Fourth of July activities in Window Rock and later in the year during the Navajo Nation Fair. Wheeler said he then plans to take it on tour across the reservation, which stretches into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, and metropolitan areas with large Navajo populations at no cost to viewers. The Navajo Parks and Recreation Department is funding the project but wouldn’t say how much it costs.
Anyone who doesn’t understand Navajo can read English subtitles on the film as another tool to learn the language, Priesz said. More people — nearly 170,000 — speak Navajo at home than any other American Indian language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but it is being lost upon younger generations.
“You could have a grandmother that speaks Navajo, and she understands it but is sitting there with her grandson who doesn’t speak Navajo,” Priesz said. “He could be reading it, so they both can enjoy it.”