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Temba, his arms open

wakanomori announced last night that we had to watch a particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Darmok." It had come up in a discussion of Japanese poetry translation--relevant, because part of what makes translation of Japanese poetry difficult is its reliance on shared cultural references and metaphors to convey meaning, and the episode is about the Enterprise's encounter with the Children of Tama, an alien people that the Federation has never been able to communicate successfully with. The universal translator is no good, because the Children of Tama communicate entirely in cultural references and metaphors, and these are unknown to the Federation.1

The aliens beam Captain Picard and their own captain, Dathon, down to the planet El-Adrel, where Dathon assiduously repeats pertinent cultural phrases ("Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra," "Temba, his arms open," "Shaka, when the walls fell"), trying to make Picard understand.

The way in which understanding finally dawns, and what happens after that, is very effective and moving and involves Picard reading from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Picard remarks at one point, "In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe that these are qualities that we have in sufficient measure." Those words of hope and confidence filled me with pathos, thinking of where the world is today.

Anyway. It's a good episode. I recommend it.

1 As the tall one observed, "They talk entirely in memes." Unsurprising, then, that the episode has generated memes of its own--like this one, featuring Winnie the Pooh and Piglet.


( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 10th, 2016 06:27 pm (UTC)
I loved that one, too, and especially the Picard quote.
Dec. 10th, 2016 06:51 pm (UTC)
I love its worldview.
Dec. 10th, 2016 06:27 pm (UTC)
It is, as far as I am concerned, the finest Star Trek episode of all. I was so smitten with it when it aired. I still occasionally say, "Shaka, when the walls fell."
Dec. 10th, 2016 06:49 pm (UTC)
I can't believe I never saw it before! And I consider myself a TNG fan.
Dec. 10th, 2016 06:52 pm (UTC)
(And I feel like I'll be saying "Shaka, when the walls fell" a lot in the next few years.)
Dec. 10th, 2016 10:07 pm (UTC)
This this this. I still remember how it blew my teenage mind.
Dec. 10th, 2016 06:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, I have to watch that one! Sounds good.
Dec. 10th, 2016 06:50 pm (UTC)
I think you will love it.
Dec. 10th, 2016 10:18 pm (UTC)
One of my all-time favorites, and I *love* that Pooh meme. I saw it when it originally aired.
Dec. 10th, 2016 10:52 pm (UTC)
It really is a knockout. I'm so glad I've finally gotten to see it! (I was moving to Japan when it first aired)
Dec. 10th, 2016 10:50 pm (UTC)
I loved that episode. Definitely one of the better ones. :)
Dec. 10th, 2016 10:55 pm (UTC)
I really love it too.
Dec. 11th, 2016 03:32 am (UTC)
Oh, I like that! Communication entirely through cultural references. :) (And I like its hopeful outcome.)
Dec. 11th, 2016 01:07 pm (UTC)
It was very inspiring, such a different tone and outlook from nowadays.
Dec. 11th, 2016 06:59 am (UTC)
It doesn't actually work, though. If they have no concept of language outside metaphor & reference, how can they tell the stories that the metaphors reference? (And if they have language enough to say "Shaka, when the walls fell," then they have language enough to say "You see, what happened in Shaka was this, and the consequences were thus-and-thus, and why don't we just have a straightforward conversation instead?")
Dec. 11th, 2016 01:05 pm (UTC)
I don't know that much about linguistics or how the brain works, but it's true that no human language/society works this way, and it may be impossible given our way of understanding language. Your points seem pretty sound to me.

For the sake of argument, I'll say that I can imagine people's minds working in such a way that they didn't think to rearrange the small units of language (the verbs and nouns, etc.) into freestanding sentences that would explain things. In other words, I can imagine people having a conception of "walls" that attaches to the word "walls" and of "fell" that attaches to the word "fell" etc., but no habit (and maybe no possibility) of using those independent of some piece of cultural knowledge. Sort of like having numbers as adjectives to describe things (these sheep are fluffy, large, and two, these bowls of water are shallow, cool, and two) but not having a concept of numbers as freestanding abstractions. In the episode, "Shaka, when the walls fell" is used in instances of setback and defeat, and I imagine if people used it around you as a small child every time those instances arose, you'd get the meaning. If there are other phrases with Shaka in them, you might get a sense of Shaka's overall story.

But yeah: it's hard to imagine how you'd get new information into the system--how would "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel" be conveyed to the rest of the society, who weren't there? And, as you suggest, that retroactively makes one wonder how the initial phrases could ever have gotten established.

I guess the best I can think is that you'd have a society in which straight talking, without references, is very weak and underdeveloped, and a very strong preference for talking in references. But that's still a step back from talking entirely in references.

Edited at 2016-12-11 01:08 pm (UTC)
Dec. 12th, 2016 05:16 am (UTC)
Cultural norms are really strong though - it could be not that they had no other language, but that it was unthinkable for everyday language to be used in, or even around, a formal negotiating context. Months of delicate familiarisation might have led to the "straightforward conversation" you envisage, but the show (I suppose; I haven't seen it) doesn't have that time-frame.
Dec. 14th, 2016 08:44 am (UTC)
I have given this some thought too, and my thoughts were that it was either a degeneration/evolution from a previous state where they had a more conventional language (like the "how do you get one one-hundredth of an eye?" discussion in evolution), or that metaphor was the form of communication you used in formal statements, or when you wanted to be perfectly clear about your intentions, which one might want to do with aliens. So just like some languages have different ways of speaking depending on the speaker's gender or social status or what have you, maybe theirs has a formal case for diplomatic encounters or something.
Dec. 11th, 2016 02:25 pm (UTC)
i need to watch this!
Dec. 11th, 2016 09:14 pm (UTC)
I hope you get a chance! It's a good episode.
Dec. 11th, 2016 04:18 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen this episode, but I just love the idea! Come to think of it, a large part of our communication works that way, too...
I love how calling someone a 'winner' is apparently a positive thing in the USA, for instance. In France, if you say that someone 'looks like a real winner', it's anything but flattering. And yet the original meaning of the word is exactly the same as in English.
Dec. 11th, 2016 09:14 pm (UTC)
That's fascinating about the word "winner"! And yes, a lot of communication does work that way, more so in some cultures or subcultures than others, but we can all recognize it as a thing we do. You know you've begun to feel at home in a culture when you get the casual referents.
Dec. 12th, 2016 02:48 pm (UTC)
Tilia, among the goats and the clouds.
Dec. 13th, 2016 12:28 pm (UTC)
♥ ♥ ♥
Dec. 13th, 2016 07:46 am (UTC)
I remember that episode! I had an interesting conversation/argument once with a Chinese friend about all the poetic allusions in the Chinese language. He was just a bit chauvinistic and I was getting a bit bored with it, so I started rattling off examples of common allusions in English (which, of course, I have all forgotten now). I don't think I convinced him, but it was an interesting eye-opener to see just how much cultural norms shape the way we speak.
Dec. 13th, 2016 12:27 pm (UTC)
Right--it really is something that happens in any culture; I think some just make a bigger deal about it. And, for instance, Australians and Americans both speak English, and we might have some in common based on that ("Feeling like 'casting off this mortal coil,' are we? Well remember, you never know 'what dreams might come' if once you do") but on the other hand, some are even culture-specific (though America has a pretty hegemonic culture, so its ones get spread around). But if, for instance, there was one from "Man from Snowy River," most Americans wouldn't get it, even though it would be in English.
Dec. 13th, 2016 07:19 pm (UTC)
That's right. "Movement at the station" is a good example from The Man from Snowy River.
Dec. 13th, 2016 07:21 pm (UTC)
Yep--I've watched the film, but it was years ago, and I have no idea what that reference is ;-)
Dec. 13th, 2016 08:20 pm (UTC)
It's from the first line of the poem, do most people raised in Australia would know it. These days you might use it to describe an unusual amount of activity in preparation for an event, or in response to a crisis. Most often with a hint of irony, so when the kids have just got out of bed before a big day, it might be "Finally! Movement at the station!"
Dec. 14th, 2016 08:55 am (UTC)
I struggle with this -- I read a fair amount of Japanese literature and history, and I don't have the grounding in the Chinese classics that pretty much any literate Japanese reader of the time would have. So I'm the person who needs a hundred thousand footnotes to understand a haiku, let alone a playful renga or something... I'm missing a huge percentage of the expected connotations because I come from such a different framework, and that changes the experience of the art.

Several years ago, I had a fever of 104 and in my fevered delirium conceived of the notion that the closest equivalent in Western literature for references was the Bible, and I had written some tanka for my then-girlfriend (Japanese-American) about Ruth to Naomi and how my love for her was like unto... oof. Thankfully the fever broke before I actually *sent* them. (Neither of us are Christian, so it would have been super weird.) We broke up shortly thereafter, but at least it was unrelated. Getting dumped because of incompatibility is way way better than getting dumped because you wrote someone weird Bible haiku when fevered. [giggling] It's funny now.
Dec. 14th, 2016 12:32 pm (UTC)
It is funny now! And okay, maybe some cultures do have it more, but all cultures can understand it--would you say that's accurate?

My father agrees with you about the Bible, and back when he was teaching American literature (he's retired now; has been for quite some time), he was aware that the generations of college kids he was teaching were less and less familiar with the references that would have been completely familiar to, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne's audience, or Mark Twain's, so he took to explaining them, e.g., "So when Hawthorne says 'serpent' here, he's referencing the serpent that tempted Eve, the first-created woman, according to the Bible story in Genesis." That way he could feel the class had the background knowledge to get what was going on.
Dec. 15th, 2016 03:38 am (UTC)
Now I have rewatched the episode with Sheeyun, and it was fascinating-- thank you!

I agree that the limitation of speech production to the highly referential was unlikely in the wild-- but I also don't care. (And, notably, the Captain clearly understood Captain Picard's more mundane attempts at clarificatory speech.)

But more broadly, I noticed with interest Mr. Worf's fairly impoverished paradigms, as presented in this apisode, and with reference to a not-really-known people-- enemy? attack; or friends?

And I think of US President George W. Bush's paradigms--enemy? attack; or friends? they should do what I want!
Dec. 16th, 2016 01:16 pm (UTC)
And now I'm giggling at the thought of George W. as a Klingon.

desperance was talking about the impossibility of a culture that worked the way these people's culture does, but I'm thinking now, springboarding off your remark about Worf's reactions, about how all the main alien groups in the Star Trek universe are one- or maybe two-note (Vulcans: logical and unemotional; Klingons: violent and honorable; Romulans: warlike and scheming; Borg: collectivist, expansionist; Ferengi: entrepreneurial, greedy; Cardassians: oppressive, authoritarian). In some storylines, they try to add depth to this, but they're pretty hamstrung by the overall conceptualization.
Dec. 16th, 2016 01:59 pm (UTC)
I think that George W. Bush wouldn't handle painsticks at all well. Ouching and squirming, you know.

Agreed about non-humans in ST universe, with the exception of Betazoids,who are basically just human. You see the same thing with fantasy elves and orcs. (For years I've had a notion of an orc tragedy-- an orc who wants nothing more than to wear a sequinned jacket and play cocktail piano.)

I think it's an exhibition of human tendency to racism.
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )

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