Friday, June 14, 2013

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, the movie

I don't know why, but for some reason I looked up Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra, I was looking for the scene where Picard speaks to the aliens in their language which he finally understands.  It is on youtube.  As is the Epic of Gilgamesh as told, either half remembered or abridged, by Picard.  (Given that the guy he was telling was dying abridgment makes sense.)

It stands as one of the great episodes of The Next Generation.

I say we have an entire movie taking place on a ship in that culture.  There could be humans on the ship, a sort of cultural exchange, but they would be in support roles.  The movers and the shakers of the ship would be the Children of Tama themselves.

This is a movie that would almost certainly fail to make any money whatsoever, but I would find it fun.


  1. This is a movie that would almost certainly fail to make any money whatsoever, but I would find it fun.

    Who said anything about making money? I gather Star Trek has a long and proud tradition of fanfiction in video form.

  2. That would rock. We could go together!

  3. The problem...

    It's a great episode. I agree. It's just...

    It doesn't work on the terms of the rest of the series!

    It points out just how incredibly silly one of the core background elements, the Universal Translator, actually is. And by saying "it doesn't work here", it makes it even less plausible that the thing does work the rest of the time. Just what is it doing, that it can translate without error all the emotional connotations of the speech of a mysterious energy being, but not anything from these human-like creatures?

    I know perfectly well that you don't want to spend every episode showing people learning to communicate. I get that. But I think the smart thing to do is never to mention it; people are used to seeing films with foreigners talking in English, they'll assume some combination of "people going out on these ships learn a whole bunch of languages" and "a lot of the alien languages are about as alien as the alien physiologies, i.e. not very". Or they'll laugh at the implausibility of everyone speaking English, but accept that you need to do that for the story. But when you explain how a non-existent thing works, you open the door for someone who knows more than you about it (and you're a TV writer, a generalist, so there's bound to be someone who knows more than you about the specific thing) to say "hang on, that really doesn't work".

    Hmm. I seem to be ranty today.

    1. To me the episode seemed to show limits of the translator, not a reason why it wouldn't work.

      The most famous quote from "Darmok" was, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra," and the universal translator translated it right. For all we know the language is highly inflected and it was actually three words along the lines of "Tanagra-at Darmok Jalad-and" (we can do that in Latin, by the way.)

      The problem was that the translator does not do idiom and reference. It gives you a literal translation and for idiom and reference literal translations don't work. It probably sucks at punning as well.

      In most languages encountered these are relatively small parts of the vocabulary, and can be avoided once it is understood they don't translate. In this particular language it's the entire vocabulary, and so the translator sucks. But it's not useless. Picard would never have been able to pick up as much of the language as he did if he hadn't been hearing it in English.

      If I say, "The best laid plans," then a Romulan is going to look at me and think, "What the fuck?" because they're not going to know that I'm referencing an English translation of a Scots poem and doing it badly. (The original says, "schemes," not, "plans.") But if, on noticing that the Romulan has no idea what I'm talking about I say, "Even the best laid plans often go awry; it's an Earth idiom," then the Romulan will get it.

      And that's where the episode presents the limit of the translator, it will tell the other person what you're saying, and translate it so well that someone listening will understand as well as if they knew your language, but it's not going to download an encyclopedia into everyone's head so they can catch every reference.

      Imagine someone who spoke fluent English but had no concept of the culture or cultural references. That's how well an alien will understand an English speaker. Imagine that you had a perfect dictionary, but not a phrasebook, a listing of idioms and shorthand, or an encyclopedic knowledge of the other person's culture. That's how well you'll understand an alien.

      The joke in "an old Vulcan proverb" being, "Only Nixon could go to China," is that it's clearly not an old Vulcan proverb, or if it is old it's not that old since it has to post-date Vulcan contact with Earth. If Spock had actually said an old Vulcan proverb Kirk wouldn't have understood because he'd have heard something like, "Only Sukesh could go to Tiamar," and have no idea what it meant because he didn't know who Sukesh was or where Tiamar was, and what the significance of Sukesh being the one to go there was.


      It isn't just "Darmok" that does this. In the TNG two parter involving Spock, Spock tells Data that he has no regrets. It doesn't matter which language he says this in (Spock is presumably bi-lingual on account of his parents being from different worlds) what matters is that Data instantly identifies that as a Human expression. Vulcans either don't say something that can be translated as "No regrets," or, if they do, they picked it up from Humans. A simple phrase, but one that instantly identified the speaker as one who was drawing on human culture because Vulcans simply do not have that expression.

      So Star Trek, The Next Generation at least, has a habit of placing limits on the translator. It will tell you what the other person is saying, and through the magic of future-tech do it perfectly, but it won't tell you what that means. If you bump into an expression you'd better ask the other person to rephrase.

    2. This basically accords to no known theory of linguistics. If you try to translate completely alien languages through dictionary lookup, you get garble. You need to know something about inter-word and inter-concept connections, i.e. contexts. So how can you build a thing that can give you those, reliably, from vastly weirder creatures than these people are, but can't tell you "when this person said 'Darmok and Jelad at Tanagra' he meant, and was thinking, 'let's become friends by fighting this common enemy'"?

      And yes, I know, I'm giving a bye to FTL travel, teleportation that hasn't destroyed society, all the rest of it. It's just an episode that stands out because it breaks what's established elsewhere in the series, and in doing so shows how much better the rest of the series could have been.

    3. A crappy internet connection has eaten my reply twice now. I simply do not have time to write a third one at the moment, sorry. Instead you get this:

      The movie Hackers has a character evasively tell someone that he hid an important item "in that place where I put that thing that time." That's what English is like when you don't get the references. A magically perfect Universal Translator should be that ambiguous when the listener doesn't get the references. The alternative is for it to give a short encyclopedia entry every time something is mentioned. (Someone says Risa and you get a seven minute description of Risa.)

      If a Romulan says to another Romulan, in Romulan, that they hid something in the place where they put that thing that time, someone with a Universal Translator who is listening shouldn't hear that they hid it, "in the secret cubbyhole behind the hand dryer in the male washrooms in which I placed the blackmail information against senator [Romulan Name] 3.62 Reman stellar years ago." That's far more absurd than the idea of a Universal Translator in the first place.

    4. Ok, I have some more time on my hands.

      "Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra" isn't the best of all phrases to use even if it did give the episode its name (Darmok). It kind of plays into my point because for the Universal Translator users to understand it they would need to hear the alien phrase indicating that two people, one named Darmok, the other named Jalad, were at a place, named Tenagra, translated as something like, "Darmok, who came across the ocean alone, and Jalad who did the same, faced the beast of Tenagra, a common foe against whom they united, before defeating it and leaving on the ocean together, at Tenagra," which is basically the UT giving a complete bio of every person whose name is mentioned.

      But it's harder to describe what you're saying using that phrase. A better phrase from the episode would be, "Shaka, when the walls fell." The reason it works better is that "Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra," doesn't have a simple translation into English, but, "Shaka, when the walls fell," seems to be used when indicating generic failure.

      And here, I think, is our major point of disagreement.

      If someone saying, "Shaka, when the walls fell," is thinking, "Failure," then the phrase should be translated by the UT as "Failure." But if the person is actually thinking about Shaka when the walls fell, if they're thinking, for example, "Damn, this is like Shaka when the walls fell," then it should be translated as, "Shaka, when the walls fell."

      The question becomes what is denotation and what is connotation and what is association. And, because I'm lazy, I'm going to pretend that association is a proper subset of connotation thus allowing me to have a nice dichotomy instead of a trichotomy with overlap.

      The translator, can't translate denotation and connotation both. Not unless it uses subtitles that don't match the dubbing, some strange form of auditory footnotes, or speaks a good deal faster than the person it's translating. What it should be translating is denotation.

      This will cause meaning to be lost, but that is unavoidable. If a Klingon wants to know what James Bond means when he says to Pushkin, "You should have brought lilies," the Klingon is just going to have to look it up. It isn't practical for the Universal Translator to describe every symbolic meaning of Lilies every time the word Lilies is used and it would be confusing if the UT instead tried to replace the word in its translation with a Klingon thing of similar symbolic value.

      Just like it's probably not going to go on a tangent about how the name daisy descends from words meaning day's eye but has been modified by being transmitted through various versions of English before it reached its modern form every time someone says "daisy."

      (Not sure why I'm stuck on flowers today.)

      So, to me, it seems clear that the UT must be translating denotation, and then the question becomes what the Darmok alien's denotation is.

      When they say, "Shaka, when the walls fell," do they mean, "Shaka, when the walls fell," or do they mean, "failure,"?

      [break for character limit]

    5. Based on my own extensive experience in communicating in references (my family does it, or did it at one point, so much that it was off-putting to other people and made us difficult for outsiders to understand) when one makes a reference the thing being referenced is in the front of the mind --it is the denotation-- the relationship to the present circumstances is in the connotations, the very part that the UT wouldn't help with.

      If I say, "I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates when he said, 'I drank what?'" then the first thing in my mind is Val Kilmer as Chris Knight in Real Genius saying that to Mitch after he finds out that he's just (apparently) had his life destroyed, the connotations are what relate it to the present situation. If a Universal Translator existed I don't see how non-English speakers would be any better equipped to understand me than English speakers.


      Short, short version:

      If, "Shaka, when the walls fell," means, "Failure," then I'm in total agreement with you. But I don't think that's what's going on.

      If, "Shaka, when the walls fell," means, "(This is like) Shaka, when the walls fell," then I think the problem with understanding in the episode is completely consistent with the near perfect translator we see in the rest of the series.


      One last note: If you know the words, and you know the grammar, then in theory you can understand any language but that does not mean you can understand anything said in it. Because language includes things like idiom and reference.

      My earlier mention of, "The best laid plans," is an example of that. If you know English vocab (say you've got a dictionary on call) and you know English grammar that should be enough for you to carry on some pretty high level conversations in English but if someone throws out, "The best laid plans," you'll be stumped (the phrase isn't in the dictionary I just checked) because it only makes sense if you get the reference, which vocab+grammar wouldn't get you.

  4. So ST teaches us that Nixon will be long remembered...

    I did love the way they had a linguist on Enterprise (as I loved many things on the first half-season of Enterprise...) and I love the fact that there are people like Uhura who do more and better linguistics than the limited UT. But I don't have too much problem with the UT.

  5. This entire discussion puts me in mind of Shakespeare, and more specifically the multiple 'translations' that can be made of his works--you can read the play, which is beautiful but sometimes obtuse in wording; you can read a 'translated'/annotated play that provides reasonable rephrasings to help highschoolers understand what's being said; and you can read the play with a headful of knowledge about idiom and Elizabethan history and thus discover that it's 80% pop culture references and sex jokes.

    In a universe where the UT is a common tool, idiom should be vital in passing messages in surreptitious ways, and I'm kind of disappointed they didn't do so more often.

    1. I have an idea for a story involving a conflict between two AI's in which the good one uses human agents and the bad one uses everything else where the climax, in part, hinges on the evil AI not getting a Star Wars reference. (A reference from The Empire Strikes Back to be specific.)

      Basically the evil AI has managed to tap into all communications sent by the good AI meaning good AI can no longer lead it's human helpers. The good AI tells them that the odds are stacked against them, it won't ask them to risk anything more, so they should destroy their phones and run for cover.

      After the one it tells this to destroys the phone he says, "[AI] says, 'Go for it,'" to his companion. Because the exact phrasing of the odds being stacked against them was, "Approximately three thousand seven hundred and twenty to one," which the human being recognizes as the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field. (Which, in the movie, was successfully navigated.)

      This means that the evil AI isn't on its guard because it thinks the other side is running for cover. It's in mopping up mode when it should be on the defensive.

      And the story isn't well thought out or anything because it's basically something that came to me while watching Eagle Eye.

    2. That is a good point. The Bible is kind of like that too, no? And other sacred/mythic/legendary texts/tales.

      And another excellent point about codes and secrets in a UT-having 'verse...

      Using words and actions to mean other things always reminds me of this excellent, creepy, thankfully dated slashfic: