Last night I was watching Star Trek: Voyager and the episode “Nemesis” came across the queue. It sounds like a homage to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome with the inhabitants of a planet communicating in an “English” that is thick with euphemisms and idioms. It added interest to the conversation, but raised some questions in my mind about the omnipresent Universal Translator that the Federation (and just about any alien they encounter) employs.
There’s an amazing episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Darmok,” which is famous in memes and held dear in the hearts of TNG fans. The aliens encountered by the Enterprise, Tamarians, speak entirely in Allegory. This one is the deepest, most fun language-centered episode I have yet to see in the Star Trek universe, and yet it poses the same issue for the operation of the Universal Translators.
So the supposed function of the UT is that it collects recordings and begins to build a matrix and database for interpretation* of a previously unknown language. It has also been suggested that it reads brainwaves and looks for “universal” patterns which can easily be used as the basis of the translation matrix. Obviously these are problematic assertions, as the UT is often employed in first contact over transmission where close scanning of the aliens’ brains would likely be difficult, or seen as aggressive.
But my major problem with UTs, which I’m focused on today, are the spotty translation of idioms.
One of our closest friends is from Brasil, and when she first moved to the United States, idioms were the most challenging part of becoming fluent in English (I will never speak down of her progress, as I am English-speaking with only the distant memories of my high school Spanish, which I never mastered to the degree she did English within just a few months of arriving). We watched movies with subtitles on when she was over, and occasionally she’d ask us to pause and explain a phrase that seems so ubiquitous to us that it gave me a whole new awareness of how pervasive idioms are within a culture and language.
So episodes like Darmok and Nemesis make a surface-level amount of sense. Not every culture would conceptualize cooperation, combat, or death in the same way. But if the UT is based on brain waves and/or evolving context, wouldn’t the idioms themselves be translated, as our friend proved would be necessary?
I always feel odd picking on Star Trek for the nitty gritty of technology. Despite the existence of Technical Manuals and deep concept development (necessitating wikis whose servers are probably overclocking at all hours), it is not a Hard Science Fiction program. Futurama hit the nail on the head with this quote in the episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”:
Fry: Usually on the show, they came up with a complicated plan, then explained it with a simple analogy.
Leela: Hmmm… If we can re-route engine power through the primary weapons and configure them to Melllvar’s frequency, that should overload his electro-quantum structure.
Bender: Like putting too much air in a balloon!
Fry: Of course! It’s all so simple!
And then later, Fry simplifies it further:
Fry: Like a balloon, when something bad happens!
So yes, I realize I’m being picky when I start to look too closely at the capabilities of the UT, especially when it’s not brought up in the episode in question at all. In “Nemesis,” the locals that Commander Chakotay meets essentially just substitute terms on a word-for-word basis.
Regarding the decision, episode writer Ken Biller says:
“I tried to create an interesting language for the aliens. Our aliens either sound too Human or they sound kind of hokey, and it’s tough to find a balance. I decided to try to do something that was more stylized, where the language itself became part of the indoctrination, so that they spoke differently than our people do, and Chakotay began to speak with their language as he became more and more indoctrinated into this culture.” (Cinefantastique, Vol. 30, No. 9/10, p. 81)
I do agree the use of these language devices creates a level of sympathy, because we assume our language is superior and put ourselves in the role of caretaker, which does lend itself to the propagandizing effect. To turn this on us later, the other species in the episode uses the same linguistic device, serving to make us question the relationship we assumed existed when we hear them speak to Captain Janeway aboard Voyager at the end of the second act.
I think the 747 Crash Survivors in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome are a much more successful linguistic element, but that’s because they began with the same language, and the swapped elements are more about evolution of linguistics than a total alien encounter. They did, as I recall (haven’t watched in a year or so), have full phrases rather than simple substitutions.
So I guess that what I’m getting at is that if the UT is capable of everything we believe it is, idioms would become part of the interpretation it provides. This messes up a few interesting episodes, including “Darmok” and “Nemesis.” The latter more than the former, as the Tamarians are at least introduced as a species that has confounded the UT. Then again, if the brainwaves for the words and, at, when, the, walls, eyes, wide, arms, and open are the same, that cast a lot of reasonable doubt on the premise.
Where am I going with this post? I don’t really know, but it was on my mind thanks to the viewing last night.
I suppose I’m writing this to serve as a reminder when we write encounters with alien languages. Don’t rely on parlor tricks. Don’t lean too heavily on your translation/interpretation mechanic unless you believe its explanation and use are watertight. And, on that note, beware of cultural idioms. Not saying don’t use them, but be aware of your phrasing, especially in cultural exchanges. They can be fun to play with, but I recommend staying as aware of them as possible (I’m always coming across idioms that previously went unnoticed).
* Translation being, by definition, the term for written language, not spoken. Since I learned that, the improper use of “translate” has been a pet peeve of mine. However by this comparison of the terms I could see the UT’s access to a vast database, where available, as closer to being translation than interpretation. Either that, or it’s just a really really good interpreter. If the UT were a humanoid AI, I would probably still want to use the term interpreter. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯