While Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country wove issues of translation and communication into the story, in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home issues of translation and communication are the story. More than any of the other movies, and more than all but maybe a handful of episodes, the drama of this story grows directly out of the complexities of communicating with alien life-forms.
In his book I Am Spock, Leonard Nimoy provides some insight into the creative process behind this movie. Early on he consulted with three scientists involved in the SETI program, including Philip Morrison. Morrison argued strongly that communication with an alien life form would be virtually impossible: In addition to the mechanical problems of having radically different speech organs, the thought process and shared experience from a totally alien environment and path of evolution would leave even a translated sentence incomprehensible.
Of course, in the Star Trek universe we are dealing with a lot of humanoid aliens that generally share a common genetic ancestry (see "The Chase", TNG). I have already commented that this likely makes the thorny process of translation at least a little bit easier - certainly easier than Morrison's concept of intelligence that is radically different. But his comments helped Nimoy consider the possibility of other forms of life and other forms of communication. That idea became the foundation of the story.
As the movie begins, a powerful probe approaches earth and transmits a signal that the Universal Translator cannot decode. Messages sent to the probe are either not understood or ignored. As it begins to vaporize the oceans, Spock deduces that this message is actually for humpback whales - the signal is essentially a form of whale song.
The problem is the humpbacks are extinct and cannot provide an answer. The implication is that whale songs are a form of communication so alien that the UT cannot unravel them. The only solution? Time travel, of course!
Once the whales are brought back from the past, they are able to communicate with the probe and send it on its way. Creating this sequence created some behind-the-scene's controversy. Nimoy explains:
Morrison’s response had a wonderful, profound effect on my thinking about these issues. (And upon the Star Trek IV script, in which Spock tell McCoy, “There are other forms of intelligence on Earth, Doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the [probe’s] message must be meant for man.”) Because of that, I felt very, very strongly that we should not anthropomorphize the probe. Therefore, when the whales and the probe communicate, I felt we should make no attempt to “translate” their conversation for our human audience by using subtitles. To do so would demean the mystery . . . .So in the end, not even the omniscient UT of the movie theater or television set could translate the whale-probe conversation. The idea that communication is more than just swapping out nouns and verbs is well handled, and adds depth to the story.
Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with me—including Harve Bennett. Because I felt so strongly on the subject, this led to friction between us, especially when Harve sent the studio heads a memo, suggesting some possible “dialog” between the probe and the whales . . . . It was only after a great deal of insistence that I convinced Paramount not to use the subtitles, and to let the mystery of the probe remain precisely that. [pages 265-266]
On the matter of untranslatable words in alien languages, Stanley Schmidt makes this observation in Aliens and Alien Societies:
A colleague recently argued on a convention panel that there are no untranslatable words-any meaning can be gotten across, even if it takes ten minutes of explanation. I disagreed, but we weren't really as far apart as we sounded. I basically agreed with him . . . when I doubted that many aliens are likely to be truly and hopelessly incomprehensible. But I don't think a ten-minute explanation of a word can really be considered a translation (and I can easily think of a examples that would require much more than ten minutes even to translate from academic English to street English, such as "Bessel function"). Let's just say that most languages will contain words that are not simply or easily translatable into some other languages-words that have no equivalent of comprable lenght and/or similar connotations. [page 177]Schmidt is clearly more optimistic than Morrison about the possibility of meaningful communication with aliens (at least from a literary perspective), but his comments acknowledge the same basic idea that was explored in The Voyage Home - that you can't just slap an easy subtitle on everything an alien intelligence says. Really, the closest anyone gets to understanding the whales or the probe is Spock, when he jumps in to 'swim with the kiddies.' Later, he tells Kirk, 'I believe I was successfully able to communicate our intentions.' I would put emphasis on the word "believe." Even with a mind-meld there was evidently only so much accuracy to their communication.
Maybe what they were really trying to say was: "So long, and thanks for all the krill . . . "
Next: Reflections on Star Trek: Insurrection. They Sure Don't Sound Like Son'a to Me.