Here‘s a story I saw on NPR a few weeks ago that is just delightful – the original Star Wars movie has been dubbed entirely in the Navajo language.
We’re all probably aware that any translation can present tricky issues, even between languages and cultures that are fairly similar. It’s just very hard to capture the precise meaning of any one word in any other language – words don’t really ‘equate.’ I can only imagine how much more so this would be true in Navajo, which has a reputation for remarkable complexity and difficulty. For example, Navajo is what linguists call a polysynthetic language: words consist of many different morphemes all strung together. A morpheme is a segment of a word that carries meaning and might or might not be able to stand on its own. So in English, the word books contains two morphemes – book and -s, which means “plural” in this case. English usually only contains one or two ideas per word, whereas polysynthetic languages can contain enough morphemes to make whole sentences in the space of a single word. Take the word Pitiwuliyondjirrurlimpirrani, from the Australian Aboriginal language Tiwi, which contains morphemes that add up to “they-her-dead-wallaby-on-shoulders-carried-habitually” or “They would carry the dead wallaby on their shoulders.” (wikipedia has even more quite diverting examples.)
The reason I bring this up is because there are quite a few terms in Star Wars that require some interesting mental gymnastics on the part of the Navajo translators. In a language that uses an elaborate system of specific classifiers, R2-D2 ends up being translated roughly as “the short metal thing which is alive.” I wonder how you say stormtrooper in Navajo?
Translation fun aside, this special movie edition holds great cultural importance. As one of the translators says, “the whole project demonstrates that the Navajo language is still alive.” Alive in a galaxy far, far away, and very much alive in this galaxy as well.