Friday, May 15, 2009

Lost in Translation — Star Trek XI

I finally saw the new Star Trek movie tonight. While I take time to collect my thoughts on the new film as a whole let me comment on one little aspect of it - matters of translation.

Interestingly the credits mention a Romulan and Vulcan Language Supervisor (or Consultant or some such title). However after my first viewing of the film I have to say I didn't notice any Vulcan being spoken, and I only noticed what was presumably a little Romulan shouting when Kirk and Spock beam over to Nero's ship. Perhaps there were more such moments than I realized.

That being said, the basic issues of translation among alien races is acknowledged from the very beginning. From the moment Uhura is introduced to Kirk, it is clear that she is more than just a subspace-ham-radio operator. She is a linguistic expert - move over Hoshi Sato!

Unlike her counterpart in the original timeline, who couldn't seem to speak Klingon if her life depended on it, this Uhura is eavesdropping on and translating Klingon communications. This is really much more credible and a refreshing update for Uhura's character.

When asked if she knows Romulan she answers, 'All three dialects.' While we may wonder how an interstellar empire only has three dialects (variations of one language!), she may simply be referring to the three dialects known to the Federation or the three dialects of the language used in official Romulan channels.

At any rate, it is a nice detail that adds some texture to the Romulans linguistically. This, along with the shaved, tattooed subculture Nero and his fellow miners seem to be a part of, makes the Romulans seem like much less of a monoculture than normal. And it at least begins to acknowledge the reality that languages are not static, but morph and diverge over time.

One other linguistic tidbit is the computer's struggle to interpret Chekov's thick Russian accent. It makes me wonder if the Universal Translator speech recognition software has similar trouble understanding accents.


Bibliomike said...

I just discovered your blog! Great stuff, very thoughtful -- I was especially impressed by your "explanation" (I know you didn't intend it as such, but there you go) of how Utopia Planitia could be both land- and space-based. Would never have ocurred to me.

Hope you will keep posting -- I'll keep reading!

Bibliomike said...

I don't know why Romulan has only three dialects (although wasn't she talking about Klingon? I forget), but I am reminded of Marc Okrand's "establishment" in the Klingon Dictionary of the practice that "official" Klingon changed whenever the Emperor changed -- i.e., any new coup d'etat could bring a new dialect of Klingon to the fore. I loved that touch -- as you say, any time a Star Trek alien speices is made less of a monoculture, the better.

Looking forward to your full review of the new film! said...

Saw the film yesterday and noticed the language consultant credit. It was for Marc Orkrand who is more known for his Klingon work over the past 20+ years; however, if I recall correctly, he got his start with Star Trek creating some Vulcan lines for Spock and Saavik to speak in the Wrath of Khan.

G.C. McDowell said...

Thanks for the feedback - and for identifying Marc Okrand as the language consultant. I still wonder if there was more Vulcan/Romulan dialogue than I noticed the first time.

Also, I am reasonably certain it was 3 Romulan dialects that Uhura knows. For example, Bernd Schneider heard it the same way - see the very end of his review: Utopia Plantia - after I wrote that post I came across the image from Parallels over at Memory Alpha. It is pretty clearly a Galaxy class starship under construction on the surface of Mars.