Klingon and its quirks

Between the Star Trek: Beyond premiere, and the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, I've been asked to translate a bunch of Klingon recently. Such are the duties of a Klingon scholar!

Jason Cato, a reporter from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, contacted me about a Klingon translation project by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council's Office of Public Art. He also wondered how to say "Welcome to Steel City" in Klingon.

"Welcome to" is an interesting English phrase, when you stop and think about it. Why do we say "welcome to" but never "welcome into" or "welcome at"? Grammatically, "welcome to" seems to be a command, like "go to Steel City" – but you aren't ordering the listener to welcome anything, you're welcoming them. "Welcome to" is a polite formula, not something that lends itself to chunk-by-chunk analysis. And it's a polite formula that Klingon doesn't have.

Which left me a lot of options for expressing the general idea. I went with batlh baS vengDaq yI'el: "Enter the City of Steel with honor.".

I usually run my translations past a second Klingonist to avoid any typos that would bring shame on my house. naHQun mentioned that Klingon doesn't (so far as we know) distinguish between "iron" and "steel", which got confusing when Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel were in theaters at the same time. I'd also initially translated the Klingon command in the plural, addressing everyone who read the sentence, but naHQun said the singular is more commonly used for general orders (on bumper stickers and signs, for example). You can think of it as addressing each reader individually — the personal touch, I suppose.

(If you're still wondering why the Office of Public Art is dabbling in Klingon, Cato's article will explain it all for you.)

Then a podcaster at a local theater asked me to talk a bit about Klingon before the Star Trek: Beyond premiere. The show didn't request any particular phrases ahead of time, so I closed the interview with QumwI'meylIj pechu'Ha' 'ej vIHbogh mIlogh yItIv - "Deactivate your communicators and enjoy the movie." That command does use the plural, since it's addressed to an audience. The one odd bit is "movie"; that's a word Klingon doesn't have, so I went with "moving picture".

Finally, Starbase Indy, the local Trek convention, will be bringing in Marc Okrand – the linguist who created the Klingon language – to be their guest this year. The SBI organizers asked me to write and record the announcement in Klingon, suggesting something along the lines of "We're happy to announce the respected word warrior Marc Okrand will be honoring us with his presence."

Short as the sentence is, it's a bit trickier than the other two. The syntax is deeply nested – you could think of it as something like "We are happy [that] we announce [that] the respected word-warrior Mark Okrand will honor us [by means of] being present". You can certainly nest sentences in Klingon, but sometimes it's cleaner to play to Klingon's strengths.

I went with mebma' quv 'oH mu' SuvwI', marq 'oqranD, 'e' wIja'mo', wIlop! - "Because we announce that word-warrior Marc Okrand will be our honored guest, we celebrate!" The translation trims a little of the nesting without losing the meaning, and avoids some constructions that would be wordy in Klingon.

While you can say "we are happy" in Klingon (it's wIQuch), the word "celebrate" (lop) turns up far more often in Klingon than in English, so using it instead gives the translation a more Klingon feel.

You can listen to the final results in Starbase Indy's announcement video – and, if you're in Indianapolis on Thanksgiving weekend, come to the con and learn more about Klingon!

Written on August 27, 2016