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December 04, 2017

Using Their Words

On board for Star Trek:Discovery, a translator gives voice to aliens.

Paula Hendrickson

Intergalactic communication could have been a problem for the cast of Star Trek.

Fortunately, writers of the original series — which debuted in 1966 — conceived a “universal translator,” a device that translates alien languages in real time into the native tongue of listeners.

It wasn’t until the 1979 feature film Star Trek:The Motion Picture that Klingons were actually heard speaking Klingon.

“In that movie, the Klingons are on their bridge, under attack, and they yell things,” says Robyn Stewart, the official Klingon translator for Star Trek:Discovery, now streaming on CBS All Access. “James Doohan, who played Scotty, made up the words for them. But at the time, they didn’t mean anything.”

Everything changed with 1984’s Star Trek III:The Search for Spock. “The producers decided they wanted the Klingons to play a bigger part in that movie,” Stewart explains. “They decided they would add reality by having them actually speaking the language. So they asked linguist Marc Okrand to create the language.”

Stewart would come to know Okrand from the Klingon Language Institute, a group that promotes the study and development of the language. Okrand used the dialogue and subtitles from the first film as the basis for a working language, Stewart explains. “He made it backwards compatible, if you will. And he’s continued to develop the language ever since.”

In 1985 Okrand published The Klingon Dictionary, and Stewart — who’s conversant in several languages — discovered it two years later. “I got it because it was fun,” she recalls. “As I read it I thought, ‘Wow, I could learn Klingon from this.’ And I set out to do that.”

Another book by Okrand, Klingon for the Galactic Traveler, was released in 1997, about a year after Stewart joined the institute. “I went to the third annual meeting — it was so exciting,” she says. “I could speak Klingon and people understood me.”

Stewart’s job with Star Trek:Discovery includes translating entire scenes from English into Klingon, conferring with vocal coaches to ensure actors use proper diction and editors don’t make cuts in the middle of lines. “The editors don’t speak the language, but they still do a beautiful job.”

While most of her work is straightforward translation — as with any foreign language — every now and then Stewart is stumped, like when a script mentioned a coiling snake.

“Klingon doesn’t really have a word for the motion a snake makes,” she explains, “which is the metaphor the writers were thinking about. I had to stop and think about that one. From time to time, I’ll email Marc and say, ‘I was going to express these thoughts this way — what do you think?’ or ‘I really don’t have a word for this.’ He’s always ready to help.”

One new word has been created for the series — tutlh — which refers to tattoos. “It’s three letters in Klingon,” she says, noting the tlh is expressed by one letter in Klingon. “It’s one of the more difficult sounds, so the actors had to work up to saying it.”

Not only has the manufactured language grown within the Star Trek universe, it’s expanded beyond it. Fans can buy a Klingon computer keyboard and a Klingon collector’s edition of Monopoly, or read Hamlet in the emperor’s tongue.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 10, 2017

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