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‘Baby Shark’ Translation The Latest Effort To Fight A Decline In Diné Speakers

The internet sensation and earworm ‘Baby Shark’ is everywhere.The song is approaching five billion views on YouTube and is available in 19 languages.

The latest addition to the list is the Navajo language of Diné. The goal is to help preserve a language in danger of extinction and encourage its use in families where it may have been lost along the way.

KNAU’s Zac Ziegler caught up with some of the Navajo actors auditioning for the project at a recent casting call in Window Rock.

Fritz Teller is one of about 50 people waiting for an audition at the Navajo Nation Museum. He drove hours through bad weather to get here.

“I traveled in from Many Farms, about 10 miles outside of Many Farms north. Had to go through the mud to come out here.”

He’s here to try out for the role of Grandpa Shark, or in Diné . . . 

“?óó’shkéii acheii, do do do do do.”

Teller grew up speaking Diné, which is not the case for all Navajo people.

It’s an old language and has grown in part by combining words to describe new terms. And that is a challenge for modern translation.

Jennifer Wheeler is a language adviser. She says there wasn’t a Navajo word for shark since the language developed hundreds of miles from the ocean. So she started with the word ‘fish.’

“We know what fish is, which is ?óó. And to start describing different types of fishes, we kind of stay on that ?óó and then just describe it. So, for example, shark is ‘mean fish’ ?óó’shkéii, and that’s what we’re using ?óó’shkéii.”

Credit Zac Ziegler
Fritz Teller (center) studies his script while waiting for an audition at the Navajo Nation Museum.

Wheeler says this type of translation keeps the language growing and also gives it a modern relevance.

“To use our language like this and incorporate pop culture for the benefit of sustainability of our language that's very, very important.”

And that’s matters since fewer people are speaking Diné.

“If you really look at the current data in 2019, our language definitely is declining, and we need to face those are some serious issues.”

Wheeler is helping Lydell Chee with pronunciation for his audition.

“I had it differently in my head.”

Chee was born into a Diné-speaking home off the Navajo Nation. He struggled to switch between Diné and English, which is why he chose to teach his children English first.

“Unfortunately, I think the majority of our people are beginning to acquire English as a majority of the language. But I can understand.”

Chee is building a side career as an actor, mainly in Navajo productions.

“I think it's cool! You know, I never heard of this until someone told me, ‘hey there's an audition for, Baby Shark. And I went, ‘what's that?’

“So take a deep breath let your nervousness go. You're doing great!”

That’s Museum Director Manuelito Wheeler. He’s coaching Joni Lapahi through her audition.

Wheeler created the Diné Baby Shark project because he is among those who have lost his tribe’s language.

“As a lifelong resident of the Navajo Nation, it’s like, ‘Why am I not fluent in Navajo?’”

Wheeler says he doesn’t think this project alone will save Diné, but it does serve a critical purpose . . . 

“Just bringing awareness to the idea that we’ve got to consciously do something now before it's too late.”

And it has an audience. The Diné translation of Baby Shark is already over a million views in its first weeks online.

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