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In the beginning of Star Trek TNG Season 5 Episode 2 "Darmok", Data says:

Federation vessels have encountered Tamarian ships seven times over the past one hundred years. Each meeting went without incident, however formal relations were not established because communication was not possible.

The viewer quickly sees that Tamarians are basically speaking English, but with emphasis on unknown proper nouns. Yet we are to believe that in 100 years no one in the Federation would have noticed that they are speaking in metaphor? Can someone explain to me any in-universe explanations for why this was so difficult for anyone in the Federation to understand?

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    An "encounter" doesn't really sound long enough to make a detailed study of their language
    – Valorum
    Aug 4 at 11:23
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    As great as this episode was, there's a lot about the Tamarian culture that just makes no sense whatsoever. How could a culture that speaks only in metaphors manage to become an advanced spacefaring race in the first place? How do you say something as simple as "Hand me the #4 crescent wrench?" "Uncle Cletus, when the carburetor blew"? No wait, that's a #3. "Uncle Cletus, when the brake pads failed" You just can't make sense out of anything technical without more precise language... Aug 4 at 19:24
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    The issue with the Tamarian isn't that they can or prefer to use metaphor, it's that they seem incapable or unwilling to not use them. This creates a chicken and egg problem. If asking for the #4 wrench is "Uncle Cletus, when the carburetor blew", then how did Uncle Cletus ask for it? At some point there has to be non-metaphorical language, and understanding the metaphors would require the context provided by that language. Preferring the metaphors in formal language is one thing, requiring it when dealing with foreigners is idiotic.
    – Harabeck
    Aug 5 at 15:07
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    @Harabeck Exactly! This is the problem I had with it on the day it aired. If they are using metaphors, where did those metaphors come from? The only way it would seem to make sense if it they once had regular language and over time it was replaced by metaphors (in a way which vaguely reminds me of Idiocracy) but if the regular language was phased out, how did anyone communicate what the metaphors meant to their kids?
    – Andy
    Aug 5 at 18:27
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    @forest they still have to teach their children the stories somehow. The captain didn't seem to have any trouble following along when Picard started telling him a story, it seemed to be a perfectly familiar and comprehensible action to him, suggesting they did the same thing among themselves...but he never volunteered such a thing himself to establish a common basis for communication. The Tamarians seemed to assume the Federation personnel would automatically understand things that they would have explained even to other Tamarians. Aug 6 at 1:51

5 Answers 5

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It is relatively easy to recognize that they are speaking in metaphors. It is rather harder to understand just what a particular metaphor means if it refers to people, places, and things outside your own culture.

Do you know what "runs like a red moped" means?

Maybe you understand "like under Hampels' bed" without it being explained to you.

Both expressions are used in German (in the area I live in,) but I doubt you will be able to make sense of them - unless you have seen an example of both expressions in use.

In the Star Trek episode, the Tamarians use references to people and places from their own culture and planets - as well as other cultures and planets.

You have to first locate the origin of the references, then find the significance of the referenced people, places, and things in relation to the current situation.

It took Data sorting through databases of many cultures to find the references - and still, you have to interpret the references once you've found them.

Even just finding the reference is a colossal task. How do you find a place when you've only heard its name pronounced? How do you know you have a place's or person's correct name? What if the name you have is one of many possibilities, but not everyone knows all of the variations?

Take the capital of Cyprus, the city of Nicosia. It is known as Nikosia, Nicosia, Lefkosia, Λευκωσία, Նիկոսիա, Lefkoşa, and Nikusiya. What if the metaphor refers to the Arabic form (Nikusiya) but your reference materials only cover the Turkish form Lefkoşa? Say you are trying to end a war, and you keep getting told "Λευκωσία." Your references don't have that spelling, so you keep missing the reference to the divided city of Nicosia as a way to make a peaceful end to the war.

Recognizing that the Tamarians are using metaphors isn't that hard. Interpreting the metaphors in relation to the current situation to get the point of the communication is the difficult thing.

Picard figures out the metaphors because Dathon has put himself and Picard in the situations described in the metaphors.

Data makes some (limited) sense of the metaphors by doing extensive searches of the culture and literature of all known planets around and close to the Tamarians home planet.

Added:

Why didn't the universal translator translate the gist of the thing?

My examples are simple metaphors.

In the TV episode, the metaphors are references to entire epics. "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" isn't a simple, single thing. It is an entire epic story. The universal translator can't convey all that belongs to that entire epic in just a few words. The translator is trying to keep up with spoken words - it would have to be able to read the entire story from the speaker's mind, filter out the relevant bit, and translate just that releavant bit fast enough to keep up with the spoken word. Try telling the story of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" (or even just the relevant bits) in just the space of time it takes to say five words.

Look at it this way:

If you and I are talking about someone, and I say "Deliverance" then you may well know that I mean the banjo playing kid because our mutual acquaintance also plays the banjo (and also otherwise resembles the banjo playing kid from the "dueling banjos" scene.) If I just walk into a room full of people and say "Deliverance," then nobody is going to know what part of it I mean - or even what I'm talking about, since "deliverance" is not just the name of the movie, it is also a (somewhat) commonly used word on its own.

That's the position the universal translator is in. It translates what it can, but can't make sense of the baggage behind the spoken words.


"Runs like a red moped."

German: "Geht ab wie ein rotes Moped." Simplest form: something (vehicle) that is very fast. Also used to refer to a person doing something loudly and enthusiastically, though not necessarily well. "Fritz ging ab wie ein rotes Moped auf dem Rammstein Konzert gestern Abend." Fritz went wild at the konzert - probably dancing or singing (screaming) along with the songs. "Moped" in German is the same as "moped" in English, except that full size (powerful and fast) motorcycles are deprecatingly referred to as mopeds by their riders. "Red moped" because red painted anything is faster than other colors.

"Like under Hampels' bed."

German: "Wie bei Hampels unterm Bett." "Hampels" are your low life neighbors, the ones who never clean house. The ones with filthy floors and stuff piled on the furniture. If something is in the way, they just kick it under the bed - dirt and all. There's a horrible mess of filthy stuff just tossed under the bed any old way. If something looks "like under Hampels' bed," then it's a collosal, dirty mess.

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    If you start with no knowledge of the language, why should it be harder to translate 'Hampels bed' than 'dirty mess' if the same words are consistently used foe the same situation? It drives the episode plot, but in universe the translator shod be able to handle it.
    – Michael
    Aug 4 at 12:08
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    They did not start with no knowledge. They had a machine that translated individual words and phrases, but turned the language into gibberish, since it had no sense of idiomatics and native metaphors. That's a far worse situation than not having any knowledge at all (since the literal translation makes you wonder about beds and people called Hampel, when you interlocutor just meant to say that something is very untidy). Obviously that is a solvable problem, so it would seem that Picard was just a bit more patient or better motivated than previous visitors. Aug 4 at 12:17
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    @MichaelRichardson " if you put too much thought into it." - I think I found your problem. If you do not put too much thought into this particular problem (which after all is far less egregious than FTL travel or artificial gravity) then you can suspend disbelieve and look for the probably intended allegorical content of the episode (or maybe not, since it was not a very good episode, but then those were simpler times and we were more easily entertained back then). Which is of course an oblique way of saying that your are probably right. Aug 4 at 16:08
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    @EikePierstorff: Darmok is generally regarded as a very good episode. From Wikipedia: " It is often cited as one of the best episodes of both The Next Generation series and the entire family of Star Trek television series." If you mean it is not like the later series (Deep Space Nine,) then I regard that as a good thing. DS9 went from the optimistic "let's make things better" view of the original Star Trek to a daily soap opera in a futurized version of Machiavelli's The Prince.
    – JRE
    Aug 4 at 16:14
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    It seems to me that this is an episode with an enormously intriguing premise, a language with a heavy reliance on flexible metaphorical references, which would give any biological translator massive headaches, which is then heavily undermined by the existence of the universal translator, which has to be able to abstract away such difficulties to work at.
    – Adamant
    Aug 5 at 1:51
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Because nobody had ever tried until Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel

Neither group had ever tried to actually take the time to figure out.

Data: Federation vessels have encountered Tamarian ships seven times over the past one hundred years. Each meeting went without incident, however formal relations were not established because communication was not possible.

These short encounters led to confusion, frustration, and simply turning around and leaving.

Tamarian Dathon however, seems intent on forcing the issue and finding a new way to establish communications.

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  • This answer seems most plausible to me--but is there reference to the fact that that no one had ever tried? After all--there have to be cryptologists and linguists in the Federation and it seems surprising they wouldn't have taken the same crack as Data to try and make sense what they could.
    – spacetyper
    Aug 5 at 2:22
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    +1. The fact that they met only 7 times in 100 years, and the wording ("Encounter", "Without incident") sound like these were more or less random occurrences, without the Federation displaying any interest in establishing real communications.
    – Philipp
    Aug 5 at 13:09
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    @spacetyper - the Federation may have had interest in trying to figure it out, but without a Tamarian equally as invested, it would have been extremely difficult. Data understands immediately that they are referencing proper names and places, but without any context (even when he and Troi learn the mytho-poetic history of the terms, they still lack much of the needed context that only Picard is receiving via first hand interaction w/ Dathon).
    – NKCampbell
    Aug 5 at 13:38
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I think what JRE is trying to say is that the stories have something more to them than mere metaphors. They have emotional connection. There's a good scene for the benefit of the viewers (emphasis mine)

DATA: The Tamarian ego structure does not seem to allow what we normally think of as self-identity. Their ability to abstract is highly unusual. 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 drawing their imagery. Given our current relations, that does not appear likely.

JRE gave the example of "Runs like a red moped." That's a metaphor, but it's also a mere colloquialism. What the Tamarians are doing isn't using mere metaphors (where I say one thing that means another), but tying into the emotional connection from the story itself.

The Tamarian needs that emotional connection (which is what a mere metaphor cannot do). Hence the analogy of "Romeo and Juliet" that Troi mentions. Juliet is pining for her lover on the balcony. It connotes romance and/or love. If I were to say "New York, when the towers fell." it would connote distress and/or horror, but only if you know the full context beyond it being a mere historical event. These are far more than simple metaphors, unfortunately. The emotional context makes it impossible to discern the meaning of what they're saying by merely understanding the words and what they mean.

What the Tamarian captain wanted to do was fight the beast together, and thus (with a common foe) forge a new story with an emotional connection. That's why his crew fought so hard to keep the Enterprise from pulling Picard back from the surface. They knew that process would take time. You can start to see that when Picard finally connects with the Tamarian captain. Once they have forged a bond, Dathon (the Tamarian captain) explains the story of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra", and thus Picard is able to emotionally connect his recent experience with the Tamarian story (emphasis mine)

DATHON: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
PICARD: Our situation is similar to theirs. I understand that. But I need to know more. You must tell me more about Darmok and Jalad. Tell me. You used the words, 'Temba, his arms wide' when you gave me the knife and the fire. Could that mean give? Temba, his arms wide. Darmok. Give me more about Darmok.
DATHON: Darmok on the ocean.
PICARD: Darmok. (draws on the soil) The ocean. Darmok on the ocean. A metaphor? For being alone? Isolated? Darmok on the ocean.
(Dathon writhes in pain.)
PICARD: Are you all right?
DATHON: Kiazi's children, their faces wet.
PICARD: Temba, his arms open. Give me more about Darmok on the ocean.
DATHON: Tanagra on the ocean. Darmok at Tanagra.
PICARD: At Tanagra. A country? Tanagra on the ocean. An island. Temba, his arms wide.
DATHON: Jalad on the ocean. Jalad at Tanagra.
PICARD: Jalad at Tanagra. He went to the same island as Darmok. Darmok and Jalad Tanagra.
DATHON: The beast at Tanagra.
PICARD: The beast? There was a creature at Tanagra? Darmok and Jalad, the beast of Tanagra. They arrived separately. They struggled together against a common foe, the beast at Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
DATHON: Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.
PICARD: They left together. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.
DATHON: The ocean. (another spasm) Zinda! His face black, his eyes red. Callimas at Bahar.
PICARD: You hoped this would happen, didn't you? You knew there was a dangerous creature on this planet and you knew from the tale of Darmok that a danger shared might sometimes bring two people together. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. You and me, here, at El-Adrel.

Picard then tells him the story of Gilgamesh, a human story with the same type of emotional connection. It tells Dathon he has succeeded. When Picard has to stop the fighting between his ship and Tamarians, you'll note Picard has to indicate he has understood that connection (emphasis mine)

PICARD: Hail the Tamarian ship.
WORF: Aye, Captain.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Zinda! His face black, his eyes red
PICARD: Temarc! The river Temarc in winter.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Darmok?
PICARD: And Jalad. At Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Sokath, his eyes open!
PICARD: The beast at Tanagra. Uzani, his army. Shaka when the walls fell.
(Picard holds up Dathon's journal, and the Tamarians beam it away.)
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel. Mirab, with sails unfurled.
PICARD: (holds out the dagger) Temba, his arms open.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Temba at rest. PICARD: Thank you.

Picard uses the correct emotional stories to communicate. The Tamarians respond by declaring that Picard's adventure on the surface is now a new emotional story for them.

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The audience

The audience needs to be able to get a handle on it. They wanted to tell a story about a species who the federation struggled to communicate with, but they can't make them so cryptic that the audience have no hope of following along with the quest to understand.

As it turns out, the mode of communication ended up mirrored in popular culture so that it now seems even more blindingly obvious to anyone who grew up with the internet.

Two memes of Dathon stitched together. The first one is a picture of Dathon saying "Picard, his face in his hand". The second one says "Pikachu, his face aghast".

A meme of Dathon saying "An image, the words describe", and Picard responding "That's how you communicate, isn't it? With memes!"

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Because of the design of the Federation's universal translator, which is optimised for a specific use-case, namely languages that use single words to convey things. This makes sense as the vast majority of races in the Star Trek universe utilise this mode of speech, so the translator can perform a 1:1 translation of ⟨alien word⟩:⟨your language word⟩ – and it does so almost instantaneously. This makes conversation between different languages almost seamless, which is what the translator is designed to achieve.

Where such a translator falls over – and hard – is in translating metaphors, because those absolutely aren't a simple 1:1 mapping; they require the translator to store multiple words and attempt to derive context from them. This is a far, far, far more difficult proposition that requires far, far, far more in the way of computing power, algorithms, etc. – especially in realtime. Basically it's a whole different ball game that would require a significant development effort from the Federation and for a single race, that doesn't seem particularly worth it.

Of course, it seems a little difficult to swallow that a coalition as advanced as the Federation would be incapable of developing such a capability, but that's missing the forest for the trees; this episode, as with most great Star Trek ones, is about making viewers think differently about things like language that they take for granted.

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  • Having a "universal translator" probably left them leaning way to heavily on that crutch. Their skill-set for extracting meaning (from alien cultures at least) was probably rather rusty as a result. A marriage counselor or other relationship counselors would have probably been a big help, lol. Aug 5 at 15:19
  • "the vast majority of races in the Star Trek universe utilise this mode of speech, so the translator can perform a 1:1 translation of ⟨alien word⟩:⟨your language word⟩" - I think that assumption already falls flat at least in a couple of expressions when translating between English and any other contemporary Earth language. Aug 7 at 21:09

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