Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lost in Translation — Horta Hears a Who

“The Devil in the Dark” is basically the early prototype for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Of course, “The Devil in the Dark” doesn’t have time travel or all of the fish-out-of-water gags of the movie, but at the core these are both stories about communication—and of the conflict that can grow out of a lack of communication. In his book, I Am Spock, Leonard Nimoy makes a direct link between his fondness for this episode and his inspiration for The Voyage Home.

The Horta is an interesting case study of the difficulties of translation. First, there is the mechanical hurdle—this creature has no speech organs. As Phillip Morrison indicated, in a diversely populated universe what we think of as speech can hardly be universal. We have to wonder, how quickly would we recognize intelligence and communication from totally alien life-forms? The seemingly omniscient UT simply is no match for the Horta (or the whales, or the mystery probe that came to find them).

Spock makes an attempt to mind-meld with the creature, and has only limited success. But there was enough contact for the Horta to learn to write "NO KILL I" in the rock, thus overcoming the aural communication barrier. It's amazing that the creature could so quickly learn even a rudimentary version of written English, considering a written language would probably be as foreign to these creatures as a spoken one. (I also think it would have been interesting to see the Horta pick up some Vulcan script instead of English - or a mixture of the two.) Nevertheless, this is one of the most creative attempts at communication we've seen in Star Trek.

The syntax of the message demonstrates another challenge of translation. Kirk wonders, "'NO KILL I' What is that, a plea for us not to kill it or a promise that it won't kill us?" When we learn another language, our precision suffers. Even the Universal Translator would have this kind of learning curve. There must be times when a translation is vague enough to be confusing (which is why the TNG Technical Manual suggests that the UT cannot be used for diplomatic purposes without adequate exposure to the target language).

The communication gap is finally bridged by a full mind-meld. At first even this mind-to-mind communication produces only cryptic phrases. But as with the whales in Star Trek IV, Spock’s telepathic ability ultimately provides a level of understanding no conventional method could accomplish. What makes this possible? Well, we return to the same premise that makes a mind-reading UT at least plausible—namely that there really are universal thought patterns and an underlying structure to language that can be detected and understood.

Next: Uhura's linguistic skill are nicely updated in Star Trek XI.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Lost in Translation—They Sure Don't Sound Like Son'a To Me

Reflecting on the role of translation in the Star Trek movies brings us to Star Trek: Insurrection. Now in this film, translation plays no role whatsoever, and therein lies the problem.

One of the difficulties of this movie is explaining the revelation that the Son'a are really the Ba'ku. This raises a lot of questions about where they got their ships, how they have represented themselves as an entire race and a force to be reckoned with, how they were able to enslave two other races and so on.

I would guess they misrepresented themselves to the Federation like so many Gibeonites (see Joshuah 9:3-15), and the Federation didn't probe too deeply because of the questionable nature of the whole matter. But that simplistic explanation doesn't really account for everything. You can read a much more thorough exploration of the the Son'a problem here, along with some theories that try to explain it away.

No matter how we explain their deception, it seems incredible that none of the Federation teams involved in this mission noticed what Dr. Crusher discovered from a simple (for the 24th century) DNA scan.

But there's a problem that would have been even more obvious to any observers: language.

Didn't anyone notice that the Son'a and the Ba'ku were speaking the same language? Wouldn't the UT instantly pick up on that?

In other words, for the ruse to work, the Son'a had to create or learn an entirely foreign language and always speak it in the presence of anyone from the Federation. This would even require that the written language used on the ships' systems and other technology would have to be re-invented. Even with 100 years for the language of the two groups to diverge there should be striking similarities in phonetics, grammar, character sets, and so on. For example, we readily recognize Shakespearean English as English.

Well perhaps that's exactly what they did - perhaps they even drew on another Ba'ku language no longer used in the colony in the Briar Patch. Even so, when the Son'a prisoners were being held captive in the Ba'ku village, did they remain completely speechless so their friends and families wouldn't notice they were speaking a Ba'ku language? Did they speak some completely alien language so perfectly that they weren't given away by a Ba'ku accent?

It's a shame that the matter of language was not addressed or at least acknowledged, because maybe just maybe no one took a DNA scan, but everyone has ears, and everyone has a Universal Translator.

NEXT: Horta Hears a Who