We recently watched the Darmok episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, my third time seeing it, and I was struck again at how brilliant and quirky it was. Possibly the best of all the ST:NG’s 178 episodes. And, apparently, a lot of other fans agree with my assessment. Wikipedia describes it:
The alien species introduced in this episode is noted for speaking in metaphors, such as “Temba, his arms wide”, which are indecipherable to the universal translator normally used in the television series to allow communication across different languages. Captain Picard is abducted by these aliens and marooned with one other of them on the surface of a planet, and must try to communicate.
You can read the episode’s transcript here. Here’s a sample:
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Kadir beneath Mo Moteh.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: The river Temarc! In winter.
(that wipes the smiles off their faces)
PICARD: Impressions, Number One?
RIKER: It appears they’re trying their best.
PICARD: As are we. For what it’s worth.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Shaka, when the walls fell. (to his officer) Darmok.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: (aghast) Darmok? Rai and Jiri at Lungha!
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Shaka. When the walls fell.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Zima at Anzo. Zima and Bakor.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok at Tanagra.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Shaka! Mirab, his sails unfurled.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Mirab.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Temarc! The river Temarc.
(Dathon takes his aides dagger, and his own, and holds them out)
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
Most of the show is about the two captains — Picard and Dathon — alone on an uninhabited planet trying to learn to communicate with one another while surviving a vaguely-defined but terribly dangerous beast. Or rather it’s mostly Picard trying to unravel the metaphors and allegories in which Dathon speaks. Not easy since they are based on the Tamarians’ history and mythology and there is no Federation or Earth parallel. Film critic Jordan Hoffmann deciphers several of the Tamarian metaphors on One Trek Mind, such as:
“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” This most famous phrase (which appears on some hilarious T-shirts) means, basically, “working together.”
“Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.” Building on the last one, this is when two strangers, or foes, work together against a threat and succeed.
“The beast at Tanagra.” This is the foe that Darmok and Jalad fought, but has grown to represent any problem that needs to be solved. The lack of communication between Dathon and Picard is a “beast at Tanagra” of its own.
“Temba, his arms open.” This means “take or use this.” A gift.
“Temba, at rest.” When a gift has been rebuffed.
“Zinda, his face black, his eyes red.” Hearing this means bad news. Something one says when in great pain or very angry.
“Kiazi’s children, their faces wet.” This also means pain, but also sadness or frustration. It may also mean “oh, leave me alone!”
“Shaka, when the walls fell.” Failure. I’ve decided to start saying this when anything doesn’t go my way. Works just as well as “oy vey.”
“Mirab, with sails unfurled.” This means travel or departure.
“Uzani, his army with fists open.” A tactical move to lure your enemy closer by spreading out.
“Uzani, his army with fists closed.” A tactical move to close-in on an enemy after luring him in.
“The river Temarc, in winter.” Be quiet. Possibly based on “freeze,” as in “freeze your thoughts/mouth.”
“Sokath, his eyes open.” To translate this to TOS, this means “We Reach!”
You can read some others here on this Fandom site. The entire dialogue of the script has been parsed and analyzed for meanings that were not given or made obvious during the show.
As a writer and aficionado of all forms of language, I was equally delighted to find so many others who delved into this episode and expanded the ideas behind it, explained it, explored the nature of a language so deeply rooted in metaphor. For example, Ian Bogost, writing in The Atlantic, said,
Picard calls it metaphor, and Troi calls it image. For the Federation crew, the Tamarians cite examples that guide their understanding of and approach to the various problems they encounter on a day-to-day basis: as Picard puts it, by citing “a situation similar to this one.” Science fiction often plays with alternate methods of linguistic understanding, and this is familiar territory: The alien is incomprehensible, but in a way that can be overcome through reason and technology.
But there’s a problem: Metaphor and image are not accurate descriptions of the Tamarian language’s logic. A metaphor takes one thing as a symbol for something else: Juliet’s balcony acts as a figure for romance, Darmok and Jalad as a figure for communion through shared struggle. Even though Troi means “image” as a synonym for metaphor when she says “Image is everything for the Tamarians,” she also implies vanity in Tamarian speech. From the perspective of her declarative speech, the Tamarians are putting on pretenses, covering over a fundamental thing with a decorative one.
Our own English is rich in metaphor. In fact, we cannot communicate without it. In his book, I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, author James Geary describes metaphor as “most familiar as a literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another.” He later adds that we “utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minute.”
The word metaphor itself is a metaphor, as Dr. Marty Grothe tells us in his delightful collection of metaphors, Metaphors Be With You:
The word metaphor derives from two ancient Greek roots: meta, meaning “over, across, beyond,” and “pheiren, meaning “to carry, transfer.” The root sense of the word is “to carry something across” from one conceptual domain to another.
Grothe points out that what makes a metaphor special is “not the act of comparing, but the result of the comparison that makes metaphor so special.” And, as Aristotle defined it (rather fustily, methinks) in his book, The Poetics:
Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, on the grounds of analogy.
English depends on several related rhetorical devices to convey meaning, including symbolism, metaphor, allusion, allegory, similies, clichés, and synecdoche. Without these, we could not communicate in as abstract and as complex a manner as we do. Metaphors give us volumes of associations and cultural references that mere descriptive words alone cannot. Like the proverbial iceberg, most of their mass is invisible; below the surface.
In Darmok, the ST:NG show, Counsellor Troi raises the example of “Juliet. On her balcony” as a metaphor for romance. Shakespeare’s plays are replete with metaphor, and his play Romeo and Juliet is chock full of them. For example, Romeo’s soliloquy in Act 2 Sc. 2 when he compares Juliet with the sun:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Personally, I would not assume “Juliet. On her balcony” as a metaphor for romance as much as one for adoration, or unrequited love, given that the two don’t become lovers until later in the play. “Romeo. In Juliet’s garden” might work better for me in Tamarian. Or “Romeo. His words at midnight.”
But one can take it rather too far in analyzing and criticizing the Tamarian language as portrayed. It is, after all, merely a TV show, and has to cram everything into about 40 minutes. The writers gave us an idea, not a fully-fledged language with its grammar and usage rules (which was done for the Klingon language). What has been done to delve into Tamarian since the show has largely been an intellectual exercise, rather than the further development of the language. No one, as far as I am aware, has developed additional Tamarian metaphors or allegories outside those spoken in the show.
Still, it’s fun to read about them and consider how we might use the Tamarian form to craft our own metaphors. But also to think about our own language in light of what was presented. How do we use metaphors to convey meaning, and how are they translated into another language? I often wonder how translators manage to take metaphors and idioms from one language and turn them into relevant, meaningful words in English. I was wondering about it very recently as I read the latest novel by Murakami. What do we lose in translation? What subtleties, what colloquialisms, what cultural artifacts get glossed over?
In his book, The Dehumanization of Art, José Ortega y Gasset called the metaphor, “probably the most fertile power possessed” by humankind. But perhaps the last and best words on metaphor should go to Bernard Malamud, in a 1975 article for the Paris Review, said, “I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish.”