Unless you are C3-PO, fluent in more than six million forms of communication, you may not understand every Star Wars language. I’m not talking about the languages spoken in the saga such as Shyriiwook, Huttese, Bocce or even Binary (beep beep doop!), but the languages into which the Star Wars films have been translated.
Take the title of the saga, for example. Whereas in most languages the translation has kept the words “war” and “stars” (La guerre des étoiles in French, Krieg der Sterne in German, and Guerre stellari in Italian, for example) the Spanish translation refers to the war of the galaxies (La guerra de las galaxias).
These names are only used in the titles of the original trilogy, however. The subsequent prequels were named Star Wars (in English), followed by the translation of the episode title into the respective language. Despite this, the saga is normally still referred to by the original names in most countries as this display of posters shows.
When it comes to translating character or vehicle names, there was some degree of variation, particularly with the first Star Wars film. The German translation referred to the Millennium Falcon as Rasender Falke (Speeding Falcon), and the French had the Millennium Condor (Le Millennium Condor).
The French translators didn’t stop there: Han Solo became Yan Solo, Chewbacca was known as Chiktabba (and his “Chewie” diminutive “Chico”), and – most puzzlingly – Jabba the Hutt’s name was translated as Jabba the Forester (Jabba le Forestier), perhaps because translators assumed Jabba lived in a hut in a forest somewhere.
Some of the changes in the original French version may have been made to help the voice actors who dubbed the film: C3-PO became Z-6PO, which sounds closer to the English name and therefore easier to dub when the original actors’ refer to him (the lip movements for the French number six are much closer to three than trois). Similarly, R2-D2 became D2-R2 (the original combination of 2D2 is deux-de-deux in French, which sounds more like a stammer than a robot’s name).
Both robots kept their French names for all of the original trilogy but changed for the prequels.
Some of the language changes have remained for all of the films, though, such as the Spanish Millennial Falcon (Halcón Milenario), and the French “Dark Vador”. The change in Vader’s name has meant that every Sith lord since has been known as “Dark” rather than “Darth” in French.
It’s a proper Babel
Aside from the translations, some real Earth-based languages found their way into the original English language films. Greedo speaks Quechua, the ancient Inca language; Nien Nunb speaks some lines in Haya, a language from Tanzania, and Watto and Sebulba have an exchange in Finnish in Episode I.
In Return of the Jedi, Oola, the dancer who performs for Jabba the Hut before being thrown into the Rancor’s pit to be devoured, is clearly heard pleading with Jabba in French: “Non, ne me tuez pas!” (No, don’t kill me!). Perhaps because even alien exotic dancers are expected to sound sexier in French.
The Japanese language has also influenced Star Wars: the word Jedi is widely assumed to have originated from the Japanese word for Samurai films (jidaigeki), and the way Yoda speaks follows basic Japanese grammar structures.
Yoda’s speech, sometimes referred to as speaking “Yodish”, is particularly interesting from a linguistic point of view. Rather than the subject + verb + object (SVO) word order that is prevalent in the English language, he tends to speak with the object first, followed by the subject and then the verb (a Jedi Master he is, after all).
This is easily replicated in other languages that also follow the SVO order, such as French or Spanish, but others have to be more creative. In Czech, Yoda actually speaks using the SVO word order, which sounds peculiar to Czech speakers. In the German translation, instead of positioning the finite verb in second place in the sentences, it moves to the end, as in “Eure Sinne nutzen ihr müsst” (Your senses to use you must).
Star Wars we all speak now
There is no doubt that Star Wars has influenced popular culture, but also many languages. Expressions such as “May the force be with you” (and its translations) are widely recognised by speakers who have not seen the films.
Similarly, the way Yoda speaks and sentences such as “These are not the droids you’re looking for” and the misquoted “Luke, I am your father” (Darth Vader actually says: “No, I am your father”) have found their way into popular culture, sometimes adapted for humorous effect. It’s not uncommon to hear somebody using references to “going over to the dark side” when trying to tempt someone into doing something.
Are you curious to hear how the revelatory: “No, I am your father” sounds in 20 different versions? Look no further than this clip which edits together different languages, translations and even voice actors across the various releases of The Empire Strikes Back.