About 350,000 people in the world speak Udmurt, a language native to eastern Russia. Nearly 50 percent of global languages are at risk of going extinct, and Udmurt is one of them—a so-called “endangered language.” Preserving these languages is hard; as communities age and disperse, and as globalization pushes younger generations to study English, the incentives to learn an obscure, local language diminish.
But for Udmurt speakers, there’s a new way to share the language: the movie Apocalypto. A team of translators has gone through the film and subtitled the whole thing in Udmurt. And it’s not just Apocalypto either—the translation is part of a wider push to take popular television shows and movies and leverage them in the fight against language extinction.
Aleksey Shklyaev is the leader of the group that translated Apocalypto. His team has a number of projects going, all aimed at keeping Udmurt alive—everything from movie translations to inventing new words to keep the tongue up to date. Together they’ve created words for “PR” and “retail” and “crowdsourcing,” among others—and an online forum for promoting and sharing Udmurt.
So when Shklyaev stumbled upon a website called Viki—an online platform that licenses movies and television shows from around the world and opens them up for crowdsourced translation—he realized it would be a perfect place to bring his translation efforts. Shkyyaev and his team are now translating into Udmurt everything from Jungle Emperor Leo, the 1997 Japanese movie that inspired The Lion King, to The Heirs, one of the most popular Korean dramas of the last decade.