The fourth season episode of Voyager, “Nemesis”, begins with a routine shuttle-crash opening. But thereafter it introduces some innovative—albeit somewhat manipulative—storytelling.
First, consider the matter of language. The Star Trek universe depends upon the existence of the universal translator. For the most part it has to function flawlessly and invisibly so as not to bog down the drama of a given episode.
On a few occasions, however, we are given some hint that communication between alien cultures is not as effortless as it usually seems—that languages are not just different sets of vocabulary but different ways of thinking. “Nemesis” is one of those episodes.
This episode features a human-like race called the Vori that take in Chakotay after he crash lands in their war zone. The writers succeed in making the Vori immediately comprehensible in English, but with just enough variation in the way they express themselves to convey the idea of a different language and thought pattern. For example, the Vori say glimpses when we would say eyes. They say footfalls when we might use some unit of measure, and so on.
When translating from Vori to English, a translator (human or computer) would have to decide whether to translate these terms based on what they literally mean, or based on how an English speaking person would convey the same concept.
To give a real world example, consider the Spanish term for peacock, pavo real. Literally real means royal (in this context), and pavo means turkey. A literal translation of pavo real would be “turkey royal”, or as we would more likely say in English, “royal turkey”. The literal translation preserves the flavor of the Spanish expression and opens up a new way of viewing the peacock—royal perhaps, but a turkey nonetheless. On the other hand the translation “peacock” is generally more clear to an English-speaking audience, especially if there is not sufficient context or explanation for them to identify the expression “royal turkey” with the bird they know as a peacock.
A translator (again human or computer) must weigh whether a literal, word-for-word translation will convey or obscure the original thought. In some instances a literal translation is too confusing, but in others, as with certain Vori phrases in this episode, literal translations successfully convey the thought, while still preserving the flavor of the original expression.
It is refreshing to see that in coping with the complex choices of translating, the universal translator does not always generate a perfectly clear, sanitized translation. In the process, these expressions give us insight into the way the Vori think.
Calling eyes “glimpses,” for example, suggests that the Vori attach more importance to what something does than to what it is. So the verb glimpse is adapted to serve as a descriptive noun. In the context of a sentence, the literal translation “glimpses” conveys the idea of eyes while still preserving the thinking pattern of the Vori.
The same can be said of translating the unit of measure, “footfalls”. Generally a unit of measure would be left untranslated. (For example the Klingon unit “kellikams,” used by Commander Kruge and crew in The Search For Spock.) This make sense, because, unless the two cultures had interacted and had identical measurement systems, there would be no equivalent word for a specific unit of measure. Converting units of measure is primarily a mathematical process, not a linguistic one. But in some instances the unit might itself be a descriptive word, or composed of root words you can translate.
Like the word glimpses, footfalls is rooted, not in the idea of what something is but in the idea of what something does. In this case it refers to what a walking person does—his foot falls, moves with each step, and covers a certain distance in the process. It doesn’t matter precisely what that distance is in our system of measurement, the term is descriptive enough to convey the Vori way of thinking and at same time give an approximate sense of distance. (Clearly footfalls are closer to yards or meters than to miles or kilometers.)
The Vori language is a well-crafted detail of this episode. It hints at the differences between alien languages strongly enough to be intriguing, but not so strongly as to be intrusive. But just as Chakotay learns the Vori language, he also learns to hate their enemy, the Kradins. The way “Nemesis” treats this idea of prejudice and hatred will be discussed in part two.
Update: For more comments on issues of translation in Star Trek, read the ongoing series of articles "Lost in Translation."