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Alumna, four others dub Star Wars film into Navajo language

Photo courtesy of Elsa Johnson.
Photo courtesy of Elsa Johnson.

Photo courtesy of Elsa Johnson.  

Photo courtesy of Elsa Johnson.

State Press Conversations | Melissa Brennan

ASU alumna Elsa Johnson and four others translated a 90-page "Star Wars" script from English to Navajo in 36 hours. After years of planning and preparation to make this project possible, the result was something that was truly worthwhile.

"I feel (the Navajo language) is the real star of the Navajo-dubbed Star Wars," Johnson said.

“Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” is world-renowned for its revolutionary use of special effects and science fiction storytelling, making it one of the most successful films of its time. First released in 1977, this classic has been translated into many languages around the world, most recently the Navajo language or “Diné bizaad.”

This 125-minute film is entirely in Navajo. Parts of the film that have an alien character speaking an alien language were subtitled in Navajo.

"Navajo is an oral society, and we are extraordinary storytellers," Johnson said.

This is not the first time Native American languages have been seen on the big screen. Disney’s “Bambi” was dubbed in the Arapaho language, and the television series, “The Berenstain Bears,” was translated into the Dakota and Lakota languages. "A New Hope," however, is the first major motion picture dubbed into the Navajo language.

The film first premiered on July 3 in Window Rock, Ariz., and it will be screened at the Tempe campus Oct. 5 in Murdock hall at 2 p.m.

The idea was launched by Manuelito Wheeler, the director of the Navajo Nation Museum and a Star Wars fan.

Johnson said the project was intended to persuade young Navajos to learn the language as well as bring together multi-generational audiences to watch the movie.

Wheeler chose “Star Wars” because it is an iconic movie with an international appeal and a prominent good versus evil theme with a hopeful ending, Johnson said.

"I think he wanted to challenge himself," Johnson said. "It was probably more of a risk, but the result is tremendous."

Wheeler spent three years selling the idea to Lucasfilm. Once the production company approved it, he didn’t waste any time in starting the comprehensive task of dubbing a science fiction film into an ancient language.

In an interview with NPR, Wheeler said Star Wars had so many iconic lines that a larger audience could make a stronger connection to it.

“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," he said in the interview.

After an interview process conducted strictly in Navajo, Wheeler selected five translators: Johnson, William Naki, Aretta Begay, Jennifer Jackson Wheeler and Joe Kee Jr.

Johnson, who plays Aunt Beru, was already a fan of Star Wars before this project presented itself to her, but said she was a little bit apprehensive about the idea at first.

“I thought it was a bit odd that all the questions had a Star Trek and Star Wars premise," she said. “When (Wheeler) informed us we were to translate Star Wars, I was a bit apprehensive due to stars, planets, galaxies, universe and futuristic celestial conflict within a realm unknown to old Navajo."

Words like "robot" and "spaceship" do not exist in the Navajo language, so translating a futuristic language into an ancient one was tough.

The five translators spent a grueling 36 hours with very few breaks translating a 90-page script from English to Navajo.

The “fast-tracked” project was completed in three months. Auditions took two days. The dubbing took about three weeks, and the cast and crew screening was on June 30 in Gallup, N.M.

Johnson came up with the translation for the iconic catchphrase, “May the force be with you,” which translates into Navajo as, “Ats’ahoniyee’ nil holoo doo.”

After the script was refined and finalized, there was a cast call for voice actors. The actors also had to read and speak the language fluently, because the script was entirely in Navajo. Around 160 people tried out for seven major roles and 20 minor roles. The auditions were recorded, and Ellyn Stern Epcar, a dubbing casting director from Hollywood, selected the actors.

Johnson originally auditioned for Princess Leia, but Epcar gave her the role of Aunt Beru because of her soft and mellow voice. The role of Leia went to Clarissa Yazzie.

“I am glad Yazzie got the Leia role,” Johnson said. “I thought her delivery was impressive.”

Preserving an endangered language

The Navajo language is classified as Athabaskan, similar to the Apache language. Athabaskan is the name of a large group of Native Americans who were located in the two main Southern and Northern groups in western North America.

Johnson said the Navajo language is very descriptive, powerful, complex, animated, humorous and intimate. The language has high and low vowel tones, nasalized vowels and glottal stops. Its vocabulary is also complex.

“A brother or sister is not simply that," she said. "We specify younger or older sibling and identify maternal or paternal grandparent, etc."

She said the number of English-first Navajo children is increasing. This is of concern even though Diné bizaad is the third most spoken language in Arizona.

“Our language enables us to pass down our tribal history, culture, ancestry, traditional teachings and ceremony,” Johnson said. “Elders and fluent Navajo speakers possess certain traditional knowledge, because they’re fluent.”

Johnson said she feels that dubbing Star Wars into Navajo was a creative tool in preventing the language from becoming endangered.

“Keeping the language alive ensures continuance of our culture,” she said. “It shows a way of closing the multi-generational communication gap and encourages the non-Navajo speaker to learn the language.”

Johnson said that since the last century, Native American tribes were shamed and forbidden to speak their languages in government schools and by western religions. This is one of the reasons why many Native American tribes have lost their languages.

Even though the Navajo language was a powerful weapon used by Navajo Code Talkers during WWII, it was considered to interfere in education, so the government tried to suppress its use.

“We’ve been fortunate for of all the U.S. tribes Navajo has the highest population of traditional language speakers,” Johnson said.

Today, more Native American schools are providing a culture-based education, including language immersion because studies have suggested that relearning tribal language helps in academic success and even student retention.

“Researchers have found that being bilingual is actually helpful,” Johnson said. “It improves one's cognitive skills and even deters dementia in old age.”

Johnson said she hopes that the film will be spread in schools throughout Navajo land.

"I hope Navajo dubbed Star Wars gets released to all 244 schools on Navajo land."

May the translation be with you

Because Navajo is an ancient language, the translation process proved to be quite challenging.

“The Navajo language is very colorful and poignant, therefore when translated into English, the result is flat,” Johnson said.

Translation also had to stay within the exact timeframe of the original English dialogue, down to the second.

“My thought was 'How are we to translate some words that don’t even exist in the Navajo language?'” she said.

Translators had to be creative when interpreting the dialogue. They had to study each scene and look at the difficult words, as well as words that did not exist in Navajo. They then were able to conjure up the gist of the dialogue.

For some words, the translation was completely literal. For example, droid was translated into “steel being” and light saber was translated into “light weapon.”

Translators also had to be sensitive of Navajo tradition when translating the script.

Begay, who was the youngest person on the team of translators, said they had to try hard not to stray away from tradition.

“We wanted to be sure not to disrespect any of the elders who value our culture the most,” she said. “There were some phrases that we could not use, because they were forbidden in general conversation.”

The translators were restricted from words that are only used during prayer and ceremony, as well as words that are forbidden during certain seasons.

To be able to stick to tradition, there were a few elders on the translating team who were very knowledgeable of some of the older terms that the younger generation did not know.

"The result was beyond what we expected," Begay said. "Navajo language delivers a lot of meaning."

Translators were also able to infuse some comedic slang into the script. In one scene, C-3PO instructs R2D2 to “hang on tight” as Luke readies for the big showdown with the Dark Side. When translated into Navajo, they made it sound as if a friend is encouraging a rodeo rider to hang on for dear life until the buzzer.

"Translating Star Wars really made me appreciate the film more," Begay said.

Rather than introducing the film to a new audience, the project was meant to connect a contemporary and classic film to an old and traditional language.

Sociology professor David Williams said that he thought it was great that Navajo children could hear their heroes speak in their own language.

"I don't mean to sound presumptuous, but I think it would be great for the Navajo people to hear a major motion picture spoken in their own language," he said.

Reach the reporter at or follow her on twitter @kelciegrega

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