Beyond Translation: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, part 1

Communication is not just about words, but the context, culture and worldview in which they are embedded.1 A simple translation of words will fail to communicate the entire message, because it doesn’t include this information. The complexities of communication are manifest in obvious and less obvious ways; sometimes we know what we’re missing, and sometimes we don’t. Here are some examples.

Teenagers can carry on entire conversations at the dinner table or on Facebook by quoting movies their parents haven’t seen. If it goes far enough, the parents realize that something beyond the actual spoken words is being communicated. They may not know what the actual message is, because they haven’t seen the movie; they’re unaware of the culturally-embedded context, which carries meaning beyond the words.
If it doesn’t go far enough that the parents catch on, then the kids have communicated a message in plain sight with the parents completely unaware.

Let’s say I’m a college chemistry professor with a poor sense of humor. Let’s say further that there’s an international student with excellent English, but has been very culturally sheltered. It’s Friday, there’s a big test on Monday. At the close of class on Friday, I intone “Study hard, because on Monday… A’ll be bock.” Said student understands the words that have been said, knows what they mean, but doesn’t understand why they were said with a funny accent or why the class laughed. Of course the professor will be back on Monday, why wouldn’t I be? [Edit: fixed to add] If the student has never seen any Terminator movies or Saturday Night Live skits mocking the Governator of Kallifownia, the extra nuance is lost.

Or, to make up a textual example, let’s say that zimbu (not an actual word) should be translated as “marriage,” but then that translation doesn’t tell you anything about the role of marriage in society, the rituals or feelings of marriage. In fact, without any of that other information, you’re left to fill in the gaps with whatever your own feelings and conception of marriage happen to be. You read the translation, but don’t get much of the information and you have no clue that what you’re reading in to it really shouldn’t be there. The dictionary won’t convey any of that information.

Marc Brettler gives some excellent examples of this in his How to Read the Bible (first pages available here), but one episode of Star Trek:TNG picks up this concept and pushes it to an extreme. In “Darmok” (Season 5 episode 2, now streaming on Netflix!), the crew encounter a civilization that they can’t communicate with, because they do not share any cultural knowledge.  darmok180At first confused, Picard and crew eventually figure out that they communicate only through mytho-historical cultural references, such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

DATA: They seem to communicate through narrative imagery by reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mytho-historical accounts.

TROI: It’s as if I were to say to you, Juliet on her balcony.

CRUSHER: An image of romance.

TROI: Exactly. Imagery is everything to the Tamarians. It embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes. It’s how they communicate, and it’s how they think.

RIKER: If we know how they think, shouldn’t we be able to get something across to them?

DATA: No, sir. The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but none of the vocabulary.

CRUSHER: If I didn’t know who Juliet was or what she was doing on that balcony, the image alone wouldn’t have any meaning.

TROI: That’s correct. For instance, we know that Darmok was a great hero, a hunter, and that Tanagra was an island, but that’s it. Without the details, there’s no understanding.

DATA: It is necessary for us to learn the narrative from which the Tamarians are drawing their imagery. Given our current relations, that does not appear likely.

Through personal experience, Picard learns to speak their language; That is, he learns not just the words (words he already knows!) but the cultural meaning attached to them.

Put otherwise, translation is necessary but insufficient. Cultural context must be “translated” as well. We too must “learn the narrative from which [the Hebrews drew] their imagery.”

In part 2, I’ll apply this to the Old Testament with some examples.

Fn1 Body language represents another important part of communication, but isn’t present in texts.

23 comments for “Beyond Translation: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, part 1

  1. Brad
    September 10, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    A classic Star Trek episode. Great choice!

  2. Julie M. Smith
    September 10, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    There seems to be a penchant for using Star Trek examples to explain difficulties in bible translation . . . I remember an article I was exposed to early on about different genres; the main example was how Data couldn’t get jokes.

    This tells you something–something unfortunate–about biblical scholars and their multiple layers of dorkiness.

  3. Ben S
    September 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    I think the reason for that is Star Trek provides a lot of cross-cultural encounters, where differing languages and cultures interact, conflict, are misunderstood. It’s popular and easy to reference as example.

  4. Kevin Barney
    September 10, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    For a while, there, my kids and I communicated extensively with snippets of dialogue from The Simpsons, Seinfeld and South Park.

  5. Ben S
    September 10, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    That’s exactly what we find with the Bible: cross-cultural issues and language issues.

    You can find the same thing in business books (e.g. don’t do X in Japan, it’s rude) but Star Trek is so much more fun.

  6. Dan H
    September 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Just days before entering the MTC to learn a brand-new language in 1995, I saw this episode. It had a profound effect on how I viewed language, culture, and context. It showed me, in a way that reached out and grabbed me, how communication was much more than just knowing the grammaticaly correct word to say. Upon returning form my mission, I bought the epsiode on VHS and have continued to enjoy it as the years go by.

    Looking forward to your follow-up!

  7. Bob
    September 10, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    I think you are discussing a level of Communication not always needed. “STOP!” says a lot without much need of context. Emotions communication things without words.
    This Star Trek episode tells much about how Mormons communicate within their group. They use words only they know the meaning/context of. Also, Correlation ( as H.B.Lee first created it), was a group of words (He picked), that were spoken within the group, that all thought every member agreed to what the words meant, but really didn’t. Members sat silently, putting their meaning/context on the words, and it appeared (The Correlation part), everyone was in agreement as to what was being said.

  8. September 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Yes! My favorite Star Trek TNG episode.

    Bob, I’m not sure what you mean by this being “a level of Communication not always needed.” The cultural context is always useful and often needed for understanding any communication. Yes, other clues can sometimes fill in the gaps, but even then, the context usually fills in gaps.

    The only time its not really needed is when the cultural context is nearly the same for both the speaker and recipient of a message. Once they differ, cultural context is very important.

  9. Bob
    September 10, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Kent Larsen:
    I guess I am saying not all communications are by words. It seemed you limited your ‘level’ of communication to words (and humans)(?)
    I think a case could be made that communications began between plants and/or animals before there were words.
    But I am being too picky for your post__sorry
    Didn’t Picard teach him Earth’s culture to communitate with him?

  10. Amira
    September 10, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    This also nicely illustrates why we need Church materials translated into more languages, or maybe into different editions of the same language. Languages like English and French and Russian have many second-language speakers, but those speakers often come from significantly different cultural backgrounds than native speakers.

  11. James Olsen
    September 10, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    There’s a philosophy professor at Georgetown (Metaphysics & Phil of Lang mostly), who teaches an entire class from Star Trek clips – it’s brilliant. So’s the series. Right now, we all read Julie M. Smith (#2) as giving a friendly/charming sort of insult to biblical studies people (possibly herself included) for their “dorkiness” in all being familiar with and using Star Trek to make points. It’s not hard to imagine that in one hundred years or so, the meaning of her sentence will change to be more analogous to complimenting the urbane or cultured nature of biblical studies folk because the incredible creativity and overall dramatic value of Star Trek will be universally acknowledged.

  12. September 11, 2011 at 1:59 am

    It’s a very good episode. However, the liguistic premise as presented in the show is impossible: such an story-reference-based language could not exist as the only language known by the Tamarians. To use Ben’s example, it would be like teenagers communicating only through the subtext of movie quotes from movies they haven’t seen, and the only way they can explain the subtext of the movie quotes mean is through the subtext of other movie quotes from movies they haven’t seen.

    There was a story in Analog Science Fiction a few years ago (“Let the Word Take Me” by Juliette Wade) that provided an explanation as to how such a language could work: a religious proscription on using anything but the story references outside of a sacred place.

  13. September 11, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Bob (9) — apparently a little confusion there — its not my post.

  14. September 11, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Amen, Amira (10).

  15. Bob
    September 11, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Eric James Stone,
    “… the liguistic premise as presented in the show is impossible”. I agree. Story telling cannot stand alone, but is very useful in communicating.
    I do however drive my wife nuts when I try to communicate something to her using a sports or war example.

  16. Ben S
    September 11, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Bob- I’m talking about words and text because I wrote this in context of Bible-reading, where there is nothing *but* the text. To sum up, text alone is insufficient without knowledge of context, culture, usage.

    Picard tells Dathon the Gilgamesh story, but it doesn’t play a role in the language learning as much as the shared experience does.

    Amira- A second amen.

    Kevin- Way to be fluent in a second language .

    Eric James Stone- Agreed. Such a language could never adequately capture technical terminology or abstracts, or teach anything new, only that which had an analog in a well-known story of the past. (One wonders exactly how these stories were originally communicated to the speaker so that *they* knew them.)

  17. September 11, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Great episode, great post. I have heard the analogy made before but this post did it better. Ben, telling stories at T&S.

  18. September 12, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Great article. Of course, Darmok is an episode that made me think a lot and also inspired me (many thanks to Eric James Stone for mentioning my story “Let the Word Take Me”). A language of this nature would need to be learned in some kind of limited context where the original stories could be told, and where the metaphoric allusions could be discussed in a group so their meanings could be passed on, reinforced, shared, and altered. It was the question of how to *learn* such a language that got me to think of the scenario in my story, where the language could only be spoken in a holy place, and it was unforgivable blasphemy to speak it anywhere else (outside the holy place, the people had to ‘protect’ themselves from the language by referring to it obliquely). Still, it was an inspired episode of TNG and well worth an ongoing discussion.

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    September 13, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Our daughter met her future husband, Ross, when we moved to Richland, Washington, from Salt Lake City. A couple of months later, Ross’s brother was visiting Salt Lake and standing in line at McDonald’s behind two guys his age who were talking with each other, using quotes from movies like “The Princess Bride”. He asked them, “Are you related to Becky Swenson?” They were surprised, said “Yes, she’s our sister,” and then asked him how he knew that. He said “You talk the way she does”.

    Towards the end of my mission in Japan, I was chatting with other missionaries about the process of becoming “civilians” again, and I realized how much of our conversation was laced with Japanese terms, sometimes in Americanized forms with Japanese nouns turned into verbs in an English sentence. As many as a third of the words were Japanese. We actually had trouble occasionally thinking of the English word to translate a Japanese concept. I realized that, except for a few of us (my mother is Japanese and my Dad served his mission in Japan), our parents would be mystified by our conversation–and that also was true for the Japanese parents of some of the Japanese missionaries, whose speech had been corrupted by our Missionary Pidgin.

    Words do not “contain” information by themselves. Rather, they evoke information that is already in our minds and memories. Even if the words are the same, the memories they evoke can be vastly different. Even with the common cultural context of the Bible, the same phrases can be understood with divergent meanings, so that a speaker may think she has fully communicated her thoughts to a person of another denominiation, and not realize that the words evoke a very different meaning for the hearer. This problem can be even more intractable than the one encountered by Captain Picard, because the parties to the conversation don’t even realize they have not reached a common understanding of what the speaker meant to say.

  20. September 14, 2011 at 11:41 am

    further, Star Trek purports to have some kind of universal translator that works on most unknown languages. Since *all* languages require context and allusiveness to understand–which is Ben S. point–this Star Trek episode is irredeemably stupid.

  21. September 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Adam, while I would say that the episode is flawed, I think one of the things it does is show that Star Trek had begun questioning its universal translator – a very worthwhile move. Universal translators are what I’d call a necessary conceit (necessary to the interactions that Star Trek was portraying, in any case). I was glad to see someone thinking outside the box with “Darmok.”

  22. Bob
    September 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    My understanding of liguistics comes from my study of anthropology. liguistics is 1/4 of that degree. Therefore, my context or understanding of languages is very different from most on the thread. I did not find this Star Trek episode is “irredeemably stupid”. I found it helpful in showing for many ways there are to communicate.

  23. September 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    “Darmok” is one of my two favorite Star Trek TNG episodes (the other being “The Inner Light”). Even with the questions raised about how plausible it is–it’s just a one-hour TV episode after all–it seems to me one of the most profound and powerful attempts to grapple with the nature of communication I’ve ever run into. And it provides an experience for viewers unlike anything I remember encountering elsewhere: as we learn along with Picard how to interpret and communicate with the Tamarians, we have the thrilling experience of UNDERSTANDING what’s being said, of making sense of something that would otherwise have been opaque. The fact the this whole experience also involves adventure, danger, confusion, and finally human sympathy, courage, and self-sacrifice further enriches and deepens it. Like a number of Star Trek episodes, it’s an illuminating parable or condensed image of life.

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