Unless you are C3-PO, fluent in over 6 million forms of communication, you may not understand every Star Wars language. We’re not talking about the languages spoken in the saga such as Shyriiwook, Huttese, Bocce or even Binary (beep beep doop!), but the languages that the Star Wars films have been translated to.
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, for example), the Italian translation refers to the wars (in plural) of the stars (Guerre stellari) and the Spanish translation to the war of the galaxies (La guerra de las galaxias). This only applies to 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.
When it comes to translating character or vehicle names, there was some degree of variation, particularly with the original Star Wars film (before it became “A New Hope”). 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 Hut’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.
Aside from translations, some real languages find their way into the English language originals. 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. 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.
The way Yoda speaks, sometimes referred to as speaking Yodish, is very 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 have follow the SVO order, but others have to be more creative. 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 have).
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 language, sometimes adapted for humorous effect.
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 different voice actors for the same language across the different releases of The Empire Strikes Back.