Thursday, December 27, 2007

Quark Would Be Proud - STR on "Unnecesarry" Quotation Marks and Blogshares

Well, it started when I saw a sign warning of a "Speed Bump" that I sent over to The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. So I had a link back to my blog, and the next thing I knew I'm getting traffic from a strange place I had never heard of: Blogshares.

It's a fantasy blog stock market. And evidently people are buying "stock" (unnecessary quotation marks or not - you decide) in Star Trek Ruminations. At least one person is anyhow. Now, here's a fantasy game that would make a Ferengi's lobes tingle. Or maybe not. It's not like there's any real profit in it.

On second thought, a Ferengi would find a way to turn those shares into gold pressed latinum.

Anyhow, thanks for the link, Bethany.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Lost in Translation—Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Up to this point we have analyzed the inner workings of the Universal Translator—how pattern analysis and neural analysis might allow the device to work. Now, let’s discuss the outer workings of the device—how users would interact with it.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country does a nice job of showing translation at work, with out letting it get in the way of the story. In the process there are some scenes that illustrate the realities of using a translation device.

To Subtitle, or Not to Subtitle

One interesting scene starts with the Federation president communicating with Azetbur over subspace. We hear the conversation in English. When their conversation ends, Azetbur’s aide unrolls a map on her desk and begins talking to her in Klingon. We see English subtitles.

Either she was actually speaking to the President in English, or we were hearing things through the President’s UT. But when the Klingons speak privately, they logically are speaking their own language.

After this has gone on long enough to convey the shift from English/UT to Klingon, Chang interjects in English. At this point we understand that in reality they are still speaking Klingon, but rather than being forced to wade through an entire scene of subtitles, the UT in our own television set has kindly been activated for us.

While this scene doesn’t exactly tell us anything new about the UT, it illustrates how the translation process can be acknowledged without letting it interfere with the story itself.

“I’m Sorry, the Universal Translator Was Confiscated”

When Kirk and McCoy arrive at Rura Penthe, a large alien starts harassing Kirk, but Kirk can’t understand him because he doesn’t have his UT anymore (which he tries to communicate by making a talking gesture with his hand). An alien named Martia—later revealed to be a shapeshifter—intervenes. She explains this creature wants Kirk’s obedience to the brotherhood of aliens…and his coat.

The exchange has some interesting implications. The prisoners are evidently not allowed to have UTs. This prison is “known throughout the galaxy as the alien’s graveyard.” So restricting UTs would keep large portions of the prison population from being able to communicate with each other. In turn, it would be much more difficult to stage some kind of large-scale uprising. This would also tend to demoralize the prisoners, and create tension among the different language groups, focusing at least some of their frustration and aggression on each other rather than on the prison personnel.

On the other hand, the guards must have UTs so they can address this mixed company of aliens and be understood. So the use of translation devices in the prison is evidently selective and at the guards’ discretion.

This makes Martia an interesting character because it means she knows English, and she knows it well, along with whatever language the big guy was using. She must have spent some time around humans or studying humans before being taken to Rura Penthe. It makes you wonder why Kirk didn’t ask about it: “What’s a girl that speaks English like you doing in a place like this?” Her English was likely one of the reasons she was chosen to help Kirk and McCoy escape and then betray them. It may also have been an unspoken reason why Kirk became suspicious of her (in addition to the blankets, clothes, and “standard prison issue” flares).

“Don’t Wait for the Translation, Answer Me Now!”

The courtroom scenes provide one of the most believable and insightful moments of translation in Star Trek. First, we see General Chang speaking to the court in Klingon. The camera cuts to a booth where there are Klingons translating Chang’s words into English. Finally, we return to Kirk and McCoy who are holding Klingon walkie-talkies up to their ears, listening to the translation. From this point on we hear the Anglicized dialog.

So we’ve been shown that there is translating going on in a believable way—actually the same way it happens today at the United Nations—but we don’t get bogged down in the process. (As a side thought it subtly adds some dimension to Klingon culture. There are actually Klingons who have studied alien languages well enough to become translators. These would be some interesting Klingons to talk to. How did they end up pursuing this line of work? What do other Klingons think of the work they do? It’s not exactly a warrior kind of a job.)

The only difficulty in accepting this scene is explaining why they were using people (Klingons) to do the translating instead of the UT. But if we allow for the possibility that the UT wasn’t available or wasn’t functioning or that the Klingons chose to use their own translators for some other reason (maybe intimidating their prisoners), the effect is very nice. And it sets up a great line: “Don’t wait for the translation, answer me now!”

Dramatically, I love the line, and I love how it calls attention to the translation process we saw at the outset. But at the same time it exposes a basic logical flaw of the UT. Chang’s statement makes it clear that you have to wait for a translation. He was referring to using people to translate, but the principle would apply universally: there is no such thing as instantaneous translation.

It’s true, with a sufficiently advanced UT you could approach instantaneous translation in the sense that you could translate a word as soon as it was spoken, with only the slightest of delays. You could even imagine an analog to predictive typing where the UT anticipates the word before you finish saying it, but this would involve some obvious risks. But the problem is a word for word translation will never sound correct in the target language.

For one thing, word order will rarely match between two languages. So the Spanish “cielo alzúl” is word for word “sky blue” (which in English sounds like a specific color—I painted my room sky blue), but the phrase actually means “blue sky,” as in “Look at the blue sky!” That’s a simplistic example, but the point is while you might be able to decipher a word for word translation, it would certainly not be as seamless as the kind of translation the UT is capable of. It would sound like baby talk, or more precisely like someone reading an interlinear translation out loud.

The truth is, even the most literal translation must involve the adding of words (perhaps a definite or indefinite article or an implied pronoun or verb), and/or the taking away of words, and/or the rearranging of words. It’s the only way to properly and clearly convey the thought. Good translation involves the translating of complete thoughts, not words.

So to do it’s job, the UT, like a human translator, would need to buffer enough of a sentence to reconstruct the thought in the target language. This would take time. Processing time aside, it would take time just to wait for the person to talk long enough to capture the complete thought.

The only advantage we might give the UT is that it has some ability to scan brain activity. So perhaps this would aid it in capturing a complete thought before it is completely spoken. But as mentioned before, for dramatic and logistical reasons the brain scanning capacity of the UT must be seriously limited. After all, it would be a poor device to use in diplomatic situations if it might accidentally translate something you were about to say, but realize was better left unsaid.

Generally we do not see this kind of delay when the UT is used. No one has to “wait for the translation.” (Well, almost no one, I’ll discuss some exception(s) in the future.) This may generally fall under the category of story telling convention—we might assume that there is a delay, we just aren’t bothered with it on screen because it would distract from the story telling. But there are also times when the delay is clearly not supposed to be happening at all, which is very difficult to explain away. (Again, a matter for future discussion.)

The Undiscovered Country also contributes one more significant UT scene that I’ll analyze (and nitpick) on its own. See Chekov's line: “We must respond personally. The Universal Translator would be recognized.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"True Q" and the Continuity of the Contiuum (TNG)

I think I always considered “True Q” one of the least consequential Q episodes of TNG. Q is most interesting when he is directly facing off with Picard—whether it is something as sweeping and menacing as introducing the Borg (“Q Who?”), or something as quiet and personal as letting Picard revisit his youth (“Tapestry”).

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. It has some great moments: Amanda throwing the omnipotent Q across the room, Crusher being turned into an Irish setter, a game of hide-and-seek that ends with Amanda and Q standing on the hull of the Enterprise, and plenty of snide remarks from Q. But it still seemed sort of like Q-lite.

For one thing, the whole situation is based on the incredible coincidence that this girl just happened to be sent to the Enterprise at the same time that Q just happened to be sent by the Continuum to determine her fate. It’s as if the story couldn’t have been told if Q showed up on earth and we had only marginal involvement from the main characters.

Watching it years later I have formed a somewhat different opinion. I think the issues raised in the episode are more significant than it seems at first glance. This is a story that both creates and challenges continuity, but in the process may provide significant insight into the Q continuum.

Hiding “Hide and Q”

To start with, there’s a nice opportunity to create some continuity that was completely missed. At one point Crusher tells Amanda she “can’t imagine” what she’s going through. And who could?

Well, actually Riker could.

He was granted all the powers of Q back in the first season episode “Hide and Q.” Amazingly no one on whole ship even mentions it, not even Troi. In “The Bond” she wanted Wesley to talk to Jeremy Aster, because they shared the experience of losing parents in the line of duty. But she doesn’t coach Riker to do something similar here.

This oversight is most glaring when Amanda whisks Riker away into her romantic fantasy, and he tries to explain to her the implications of using her powers this way—that none of it is real. Even at that moment, with the issue forced upon him, he doesn’t mention his own experience with that kind of power. Here she is talking to the one human who has actually been a Q, and we don’t get single line of dialogue to even imply that he ever had such an experience.

Being Human

In his Nitpickers Guide, Phil Farrand points out another seeming inconsistency:
Q gives Amanda only two choices at the end of the episode: Return to the Continuum, or refrain from user her powers. Isn’t there another choice? Earlier in this episode, Amanda claimed that she just wanted to become a normal human again. Isn’t that the third choice? In “Déjà Q,” the Continuum turned Q into a human, stripped him of his powers, and dumped him on the Enterprise. Why couldn’t they do the same to Amanda, if that’s what she really wants?
To be fair there is also a fourth option—she could have been imprisoned like Quinn in the Voyager episode “Death Wish.” In any event, clearly they could have done the same for Amanda, so the answer must be that they did not want to do this for Amanda. But why not? Why did they strong-arm her into joining the Continuum? I would suggest it has something to do with Picard’s response to Q’s claims of the Continuum’s “superior morality”:
Your arrogant pretense at being the moral guardians of the universe strikes me as being hollow, Q. I see no evidence that you are guided by a superior moral code or any code whatsoever. You may be nearly omnipotent, and I don't deny that your parlor tricks are impressive. But morality - I don't see it. I don't acknowledge it, Q. I would put human morality against the Q's any day.

And perhaps that's the reason that we fascinate you so. Because our puny behavior shows you a glimpse of the one thing that eludes your omnipotence - a moral center. And if so, I can think of no crueler irony than that you should destroy this young woman, whose only crime is that she's too human.
Q responds with the wonderfully dismissive comment, "Jean Luc, sometimes I think the only reason I come here is to listen to these wonderful speeches of yours."

But maybe Picard was on to something. Maybe his assessment of the Continuum was closer to the truth than Q was willing to acknowledge. In fact, in “The Q and the Grey” (VOY) Q as much as admits that human morality is what is missing from the Continuum. He wants Janeway to have his child, some kind of human-Q hybrid, a Messiah.

Could it be that Amanda was the Continuum’s first attempt at something like this? They didn’t offer her the option of becoming fully human because they wanted someone human to become Q and bring human compassion and kindness into the Continuum.

Oh Where, Oh Where has Amanda Gone?

Whether or not that’s exactly what they had in mind, the question remains: What happened to Amanda? Her story is alluded to in “Death Wish” and “The Q and the Grey,” but any direct mention of Amanda is notably absent.

In “Death Wish” Quinn submits the Continuum’s use of capitol punishment as evidence that the death of a Q—even if self-inflicted—will not create a destructive disturbance in the Continuum. Although it’s certainly possible that Amanda’s parents aren’t the only Q to have been executed, as the audience we naturally take it as reference to them. So there’s this subtle nod to the events described in “True Q,” but when Janeway and Tuvok are taken to the Continuum, there’s no sign of Amanda.

Now it’s true, we cannot insist that we saw every Q in what was really just a representation or the Continuum anyways. Still, it is reasonable to think Amanda would be interested in these visitors from Starfleet. Well, maybe she was “walking the road” at the time. She may have a more active interest in the universe than the older, apathetic Q that we saw.

Or perhaps like Quinn, she had angered some elements within the Continuum. Could it be that her desire to see her parents led her to try to bring them back to life against the wishes of the Continuum and so she had been banished, imprisoned, or even executed? (Hey, worrying about his mother got Anakin too.)

Then we move ahead to “The Q and the Grey.” As mentioned above, Q wanted to have a son. Ultimately he has one with the help of a lady-Q. One minor continuity problem is that Q spoke of Amanda’s parents with disgust for conceiving a child in ‘vulgar human fashion,’ but here he turns around and does basically the same thing.

Well could it be he was just saying that as part of his whole routine of trivializing puny human behavior? Or perhaps Q was just parroting the official position of the Continuum even thought he didn’t truly agree with them? On the other hand, can’t a Q change his mind sometimes?

In any event, we know Amanda’s parents had a child while in human form, which seems like a unique event in the history of the Continuum, and we know that Q (and Q) had a child while in Q-form, a similarly landmark event. So the question becomes, did Amanda inspire Q’s plan to introduce humanity into the Continuum? Did his respect for Quinn the irrepressible translate into respect for Amanda’s parents the irrepressible and a desire to accomplish something similar?

Obviously her presence alone had not brought peace to the Continuum, or Q wouldn’t have felt the need to have a son himself. But did he see some potential in whatever impact she did have on the Continuum? ‘She would have accomplished so much good if only . . . fill in the blank.’

Perhaps when the civil war broke out, she took sides with Q, but was killed in the fighting early on, and that’s when Q set out to recreate the kind of influence her humanity was having (or could have had) on the Continuum.

It would have been nice to have some of these loose ends tied up, but combining Picard’s comments from “True Q” with Q’s plan in “The Q and the Grey” I think we can draw some reasonable conclusions. This in turn casts an interesting light on all of Q’s visits. Sure, they want to teach us—about our limitations (see the Borg), about ourselves (see Picard gets stabbed by a Naussican), and about the universe (see an anti-time paradox)—but underneath all the pomp and pretense and humanity-on-trial business may well be some genuine respect and a real desire to learn something from us in the process.