May You Walk in Great Power

This week, I saw a news item that delighted me – the Navajo Nation Museum and Lucasfilm are currently working together to create a dubbed version of Star Wars: A New Hope in Navajo, a language spoken by around 210,000 people. Why? To help preserve the language and teach it to younger members of the Navajo tribe in a fun and entertaining way. The dubbed version will be debuted this coming July 4th. This represents an important achievement for endangered languages, the latest in a series of success stories.

This isn’t the first instance in which Native American languages and Star Wars have come into contact. As someone who grew up around sci-fi enthusiasts, I’ve collected plenty of trivia about languages, translation, and science fiction, often weaving sci-fi clips into presentations on translation and interpreting.

One of my favorite fun language-related sci-fi facts is that Jabba the Hutt (from Return of the Jedi) actually speaks Quechua, the language of the Incas. Even though the language has an important past, Quechua is still spoken today by 8 to 10 million people in the Andes.

In addition to language-related scenes, sci-fi movies and TV shows are rich with references to translation. Here are some of my favorite quotes from sci-fi characters:

“Our universal translators must be malfunctioning.”

— Rom (Deep Space Nine)

“You haven’t got your translator switched on, sir.”

— Janet (Doctor Who)

“I’d guess it’s a language so unlike ours that the universal translator can’t interpret it. Harry, remodulate the translator, see if we can decipher those sounds.”

— Janeway (Star Trek Voyager)

“Translating an alien language is going to take time.”

— Alex (Doctor Who)

“I don’t have enough data to translate all the inscriptions,”

— Captain Picard (Star Trek Next Generation)

“We use a device called the universal translator. It’s like an alien dictionary with hundreds of languages programmed into it, and it can learn new languages very quickly, but it doesn’t always work, and when that happens it’s up to me to try to translate. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you it can be really hard sometimes. One wrong word can mean the difference between saying ‘take my hand’ or ‘take my life’.”

— Hoshi (Star Trek Enterprise)

“The trouble with immortality is it’s boring. Adjusting the translator will give you something to do.”

— Captain Kirk (Star Trek: The Original Series)

“They were more than my interpreters. They were also my friends. They were a part of me. I did not realize how much a part until now.”

— Commander Data (Star Trek Next Generation)

It’s certainly interesting to look back to the past, to see how sci-fi portrayed the future, and to see which predictions about translation came true. Captain Picard’s remark about having enough data to translate could easily have been made today, referring to Google Translate and its statistical approach to computer-generated translation.

Other notions, such as a universal translator and the ability to translate alien languages, have not exactly become reality yet. But, the idea that translation is “really hard,” that tools can easily “malfunction” and must be “adjusted” by humans, are all part of our current reality – and most likely part of our future too. On the flip side, it’s also interesting to look at a language like Navajo, which many people mistakenly associate only with the past, when in reality, it has just as much claim to the future as any other language does.

Indeed, millions of people recently heard an ancestral language, Tiwa, spoken on the American reality television show Project Runway. The Native American designer and runner-up Patricia Michaels talked on the season finale with her mother in their native tongue, which is spoken by fewer than 3000 people. Her futuristic, native-inspired designs were enthusiastically praised by renowned fashion designer Michael Kors (whose company we’re proud to count as a Smartling client).

Navajo also has something important to contribute to the present – a view of the world that is not widely understood or disseminated (yet). Just consider how to translate the phrase, “May the force be with you” into Navajo. A literal translation doesn’t work, but a more faithful, meaning-based translation would translate back into English along the lines of, “May you walk in great power.” Now, isn’t that a sentiment that contributes something new, and something beautiful to our world, in the here and now?

About Nataly Kelly

Nataly brings nearly two decades of translation industry experience to Smartling, most recently as Chief Research Officer at industry research firm Common Sense Advisory. Previously, she held positions at AT&T Language Line and NetworkOmni (acquired by Language Line), where she oversaw product development. A veteran translator and certified court interpreter for Spanish, she has formally studied seven languages, and is currently learning Irish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, Nataly lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t working, you’ll usually find her translating Ecuadorian poetry, writing books, and exploring the world (36 countries and counting!).