Finding the Navajo Words for Nemo

The Navajo Language

The Navajo tribe is one of the largest tribes in the U.S.A., and its language the most spoken ancient tribal idiom.

About 1000 years ago the Navajo and other Apachean groups who traveled southwest from Canada, separated. The Navajo arrived in the area where they currently live, which is known in Navajo as Dinetah, around the year 1300.

Spanish records from the 1630s show that its people planted maize, hunted, traded with the Pueblos, and were good warriors. In 1863 Kit Carson was supposed to round-up all Navajo and incarcerate them at Ft. Sumner in New Mexico. While 6000 people were sent there, many died of hunger and illness. The survivors were allowed to return home in 1868.

Today, Navajo is spoken by about 150 – 200,000 people in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. As for most ancient languages spoken by a minority in a nation with another primary language, it is at risk of extinction. It is difficult for the young generations to relate to the idiom and to speak it in our modern day culture. Many objects and concepts that surround them do not have a Navajo word as they did not exist when the language was formed. It does not seem to have undergone the developments other languages like English or Spanish have over the past decades. The good news is that most reservation schools offer Navajo instruction, and some schools are bilingual with Navajo immersion programs. Dine College offers language and literature instruction along with a teaching degree.  

Navajo Language Translation and Voice-Over

In order to appeal to the younger generations, the Navajo Nation Museum took the initiative of having the animated film “Finding Nemo” dubbed into Navajo. Walt Disney Studios funded the project to revive interest and awareness in the ancient language. The dubbing of “Star Wars” a few years ago had been a big success.

Professionally translating such projects is a substantial and challenging task. First, Navajo speakers who are also translators and voice over talents have to be found and be available, which can be difficult in a quickly shrinking native-speaker pool.  Next, these valuable resources are confronted with the task not only of translating but also of finding suitable Navajo words for English terms that don’t exist in the current Navajo vocabulary.

In the example of Finding Nemo, describing an underwater fantasy setting in a language that developed far away from the ocean, forces Navajo linguists to be creative. As you can read in the article linked below, “anemone” was translated to “a place of many plants”. Proper names and colloquialisms were left in English to avoid confusion.

Any guess as to the translation of “robot” in “Star Wars”? “Living metal”!

The next challenge would be for the voice over talents to impersonate a talking shark or clown fish! Much excitement and success are expected in regards to the Navajo Finding Nemo version. Nicely done Navajo Nation and Disney!

Check out this article for an interesting quick read on the subject.