Languages of the Final Frontier

I have a confession to make. I just need to get myself ready… Here I go… I’ll just come out and say it:

I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Whew, there, I said it. Wasn’t so bad, actually. All joking aside, I would guess not many people my age, especially in my country, watch and enjoy the show, though I may be wrong. Maybe there just aren’t many among my friends who do.

[Here’s where I insert a spoiler alert for those who may watch TNG]

Riva, the only(?) Deaf character in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Riva, the only(?) Deaf character in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Anyway, my friend Hannah, who is, along with her husband, the creator of a comic series Shatter Realm, told me about an episode (“Loud as a Whisper”) in which there is a deaf character. Indeed a Deaf character, “born and hope to die.” Riva, like the other members of the ruling family of the planet Ramatis III, has a genetic condition that makes him deaf, as his brain cannot receive and process sound. To be honest, the existence of such a character surprised me. I assumed that such a character would not exist, as space-faring peoples would, in a sci-fi universe created by hearing people, have likely eradicated deafness. Indeed, after a tragedy left Riva without his interpreters, the doctor seems to immediately start searching for a way to make him hearing.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the episode immensely. I don’t think I have laughed as hard in some time as I did while watching some of the scenes. In watching, the issues I have with the show’s way of dealing with languages resurfaced.

Basically, like all/most sci-fi movies, books, etc., TNG is very lazy with languages. The issue of various planets and various intelligent species all developing independently with no possible linguistic connection or overlap is generally solved with a single innovation. What is that, you ask? The universal translator, the unrealistic, unscientific, even silly device/program or whatever it is that has the ability to understand even languages that it has never encountered before. It does seem, however, to have its limitations, though. It seems powerless to help the crew of the Enterprise understand Riva’s signing.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly understand that it is unrealistic to expect a production team to spend time and money inventing dozens of alien languages, and wasting valuable airtime on the linguistic barriers that would invariably get in the way of every new inter-species encounter. But sometimes the show’s language laziness just rubs me the wrong way.

Take the episode with Riva, for example. As soon as I read in the Star Trek wiki that Riva signs in the episode, I knew that it would be ASL. Riva, as a native of a planet far from Earth, would have no exposure to American Sign Language, or any native Earth sign language. Or, at the very least, would not use it as mother sign when in emotional distress. And yet, he does. A bit too hard to invent another sign language, I guess. Or perhaps they figured that since most of the shows viewers would not know ASL, it wouldn’t make much difference. Or maybe Riva’s actor, Howie Seago, just wanted his native sign language to be featured, or….

Who knows?

(Granted there may be some signs Riva uses that are specifically unique to his people, though. In referring to his ‘Chorus’ of interpreters, he uses the sign that usually means ‘6‘ in ASL and JSL, perhaps because it classifies three people standing together.)

Furthermore, the interpreting of Lieutenant Commander Data, one of the show’s most iconic characters, got to me. I wouldn’t expect actor Brent Spiner to learn a million signs for a single episode, but damn… Data signs nothing that I understand in ASL when he was interpreting one sentence or two by Captain Picard; a full 3 signs, certainly missing most of what the captain says. Granted, my ASL is not all that great, so I may be wrong. And then, there are instances in which Data ‘interprets’ what Riva signed before he signs them, clearly Spiner just remembering lines and not knowing the signs that correspond to the words. He also interprets things just plain wrong, like when he interprets the sign for “positive”/”advantage” as “They will have something in common.”

I don’t know how much work they put into language presentation in this episode, but in my opinion, it could have been better, and detracted from the episode for me. But hey, it’s followed the tradition of how languages are dealt with by the producers, so maybe I shouldn’t complain so much. How much can you do with time and budget constraints?

Despite this, and some cheesy moments (like when Riva bonds with born-blind Geordi La Forge), I liked the episode very much. It showcases some of the issues that hearing people often have when interacting with Deaf and their interpreters. (Riva has to demand that Captain Picard speak directly to him, not his Chorus.) Riva’s reaction at losing his Chorus is a great, if exaggerated, expression of how important a really good interpreter is to a Deaf person. I think it was a very cool way of looking at and showcasing Deafness.

And to answer the question I know you’re dying to ask… No, I’m not a Trekkie. I’m just a fan. 🙂

This entry was posted in JSL, Miscellaneous Language Issues and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Languages of the Final Frontier

  1. read.robin says:

    Every sci-fi show that I’ve seen deals with language the same way. I don’t think it’s laziness so much as crowd appeal, and the majority of the audience won’t want as in depth a treatment of language as linguistic lovers will. The producers have to find a way to keep everyone interested and sometimes that means cutting corners.


    • kenliano says:

      Meh, you say tomato, I say laziness…

      I do get what you’re saying, though. It does feel like laziness, to me, but I cannot blame them for it. A lot of crowd-pleasing in show business ends up looking like that.

      Do you know Defiance, a SyFy original? I’ve only watched a few episodes, but its portrayal of languages is pretty cool. It dodges the time-consuming first-contact thing by moving ahead a few decades so that the aliens’ coming to earth is in the past and the societies have already been very well established on Earth.

      Yes, it’s unrealistic to expect a lot of other movies, books, etc. to do it “right”, but it’s cool when you get to see it.


  2. Pingback: Dr Who goes deaf?! | Mr Multilingual

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