Some young Navajo speakers in Flagstaff will get the opportunity to teach their peers, and future generations, that fish are friends, not food.
The Navajo translation of “Finding Nemo” hits the theater in Flagstaff Friday afternoon, and features the voices of some local kids in the roles of the baby turtles who help Marlin along on his search for Nemo. The movie first premiered in Albuquerque, where many of the cast and crew got to see the movie for the first time.
“Finding Nemo” is the second movie to be translated into Navajo. “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” was translated into Navajo in 2013.
The movie, which chronicles the journey of Nemo’s father, Marlin, and his forgetful friend, Dory, as they search for the young fish who was stolen off the reef by divers, originally premiered in 2003.
Mariano Esquivel, 6, a first grader at Kinsey Elementary School, voiced an unnamed baby turtle. His mom, Catherine Esquivel, said he is not quite fluent in Navajo yet, but they speak it together at home, and he was coached for his lines.
“It was really cool,” Mariano said about hearing his voice on TV.
“He was really listening hard for his part,” Catherine said. “I’m very proud of him, and I felt so happy to hear he would be part of it.”
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Catherine said it took about a day to record Mariano’s lines, done in a makeshift recording studio in Gallup, N.M.
Catherine got emotional while talking about the impact this movie will have in preserving the Navajo language.
“I don’t know that he understands now how huge this is for the Navajo people, to have Disney play a part in retaining our language,” she said. “When he’s older he will think, ’Wow, this was a great time in my life.’”
Catherine said she had to translate some of the movie for Mariano during the premiere, but said she was surprised that it seemed like the jokes were even funnier in Navajo.
“I never thought a Navajo voice could sound like a surfer dude,” she said with a laugh. “All the Navajo voices sounded like the Disney version.”
Catherine said she was proud Mariano helped play a role in the effort to keep the language popular for younger people.
“I’m very happy to have participated in something that will help keep the language alive,” Catherine said. “Anything we can do as a tribe to keep the language going, through films, books or music, is a good thing.”
For 11-year-old Mikyla Hongeva, a sixth grader at Mount Elden Middle School, Navajo movie translations runs in the family. Her mom, Geri Hongeva, played C-3PO in “Star Wars.”
“It was a lot of fun recording and acting,” Mikyla said. “I know Navajo from my grandma and my mom, and we speak it at home.”
Mikyla also participated in the Navajo immersion program at Puente de Hozho Elementary School, where she learned to read and write the language, Geri said.
Mikyla also played a baby turtle in the movie, and said Crush, the father turtle is her favorite character.
“I think it’s important because many people don’t know the Navajo language, and it’s important to keep the language going,” Mikyla said.
Geri said “Finding Nemo” was the perfect choice of a movie to translate, because the whole story is about a parent’s perseverance to save the child, which connects well with Navajo culture.
Geri said she hopes seeing Mikyla in the movie will inspire Mikyla’s younger cousins to speak in Navajo more often, and help other Navajo children learn the language.
“With a Disney movie, it hits the spot of preserving the language for young people,” Geri said. “I was so proud to see her name in the credits.”
Rick Dempsey, the senior vice president of Disney character voices, supervised the recording process on the Disney side of the production. The Navajo Nation Museum coordinated with Disney to create and cast the movie.
Dempsey and museum Director Manuelito Wheeler worked with linguists to translate the movie properly.
Dempsey said the group chose “Finding Nemo” because they wanted a movie with animal characters instead of humans and a movie without many songs.
“I love the fact that Navajo has such a place in our history, with the Code Talkers in World War II,” Dempsey said. “If we want to work to preserve a language, this is a great one.”
Dempsey said about 350 people attended the movie’s premiere in Albuquerque, and said everyone enjoyed the movie and the way it was translated.
“There was constant applause and constant laughter,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey said casting the children’s parts was a challenge because most fluent Navajo speakers are older. However, he said some of the kids received coaching for their lines and were able to deliver them well.
All parts of the movie are translated, meaning the ending song, “Beyond the Sea,” had to be translated as well. Dempsey said casting officials could not find anyone to sing the song in Navajo, so they asked Patrick Stump, the lead singer of the pop-punk band Fall Out Boy to sing the song phonetically.
“He knocked it out of the park,” Dempsey said. “People were so taken that he was able to sing in their native language and make it sound so good.”
The movie, which will show at the Flagstaff Harkins from March 18 through March 24, will be free of charge, so Dempsey said the motive behind making the movie was purely philanthropic on Disney’s part.
“There’s no economic benefit,” Dempsey said. “It’s a philanthropic effort to preserve the language. It’s helping preserve the culture of the largest Native American population, and it’s an important language in our history.”
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