Almost 40 years after its release, Star Wars has been translated for a Navajo audience.

The classic first movie in the saga, which kick-started a craze for sci-fi films, has been translated into Navajo in an effort to educate people about the language and preserve it for future generations. The move came after the director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Arizona Manuelito Wheeler approached Lucasfilm to ask permission. The project is being funded by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department.

The Navajo are the largest tribe to have federal recognition in the US, and yet fewer members of the tribe are speaking the native language than in years gone by. It is estimated there are between 120,000 and 170,000 speakers of the language today, but since the Second World War, the use of English has increased in popularity among the communities.

According to the Associated Press, Mr Wheeler came up with the idea of having the popular movie translated into Navajo as a means to educate people about the language, as well as creating a record of it. He also hopes it will be a way for people to learn the Athabaskan language.

Code Talkers

While English has become more widely-spoken among the Navajo since the middle of the 20th century, as a language Navajo played an important role during both world wars. At this time, soldiers from the US spoke in this and other Native American languages when they wanted to secretly communicate messages, and became known as code talkers.

The few hundred bilingual Native Americans serving in the US armed forces were instrumental in passing on tactical messages and translating them, and by World War II the Marines were recruiting them specifically for this purpose. The Navajo language is not as mutually intelligible as many of the other Native American languages due to its complicated system of grammar, which made it a good candidate for passing on information in code.

“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,” Mr Wheeler explains.

The script of Star Wars IV: A New Hope was translated over the course of 36 hours by a group of five native Navajo speakers. Now, they need to recruit the voice cast to perform the roles of the dozens of characters that appear in the film. The casting calls took place in early May – but agents weren’t just looking for people who could mimic the original cast, which included Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. Instead, it was hoped that actors would be found with voices that captured the essence of the characters.

Some of the most iconic voices, like that of Darth Vader, will be tinkered with in post-production so that the Navajo actor sounds more like the original – James Earl Jones, in the case of Darth. Of course, the Star Wars franchise features numerous fictional languages. For the purpose of the Navajo version, these will not be translated so Chewbacca will still speak Wookiee. This is just one of the made-up languages to appear in the saga. Another is Huttese, which is spoken by Jabba the Hutt and his clan. Some of the robots like R2D2 also speak a fictional language, which won’t undergo translation.

“May you walk with great power”

One of the most interesting things to see in the completed film will be how the translators tackled words that do not have an equivalent in the Navajo language. This was also something that proved challenging when the Native Americans acted as code talkers. However, Arizona State University English professor Laura Tohe said the most likely solution is to use words in the language with a similar meaning to what they are translating. For instance, during World War II, code talkers used the Navajo word for potato as the translation for “grenade” as the two were a similar size and shape. She predicts that “may the force be with you” will become something along the lines of: “May you walk with great power.”

However, Star Wars won’t be a completely alien concept to the Navajo, as some of their traditional ceremonies centre on star constellations and space.

The translated movie will premiere on July 4th at Window Rock in Arizona, before going on tour. It will feature English subtitles.

Navajo Star Wars will beat Star Wars VII to the cinemas. For years it was not known if the long-awaited sequel would ever see the light of day, but since the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, it has been announced that the movie will be made. JJ Abrahams is set to direct and the film is scheduled for release in 2015, although plot details have yet to be unveiled.