Oct. 01, 2015

Princess Leia and the Conundrum of Language Translation

by David J. Peterson

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The following is an excerpt from The Art of Language Invention, by David J. Peterson. Listen to SciFri on October 2, 2015, to hear Peterson talk more about linguistics and inventing languages.
When I was a kid, the original Star Wars trilogy had just completed its initial run in theaters, and Star Wars was everywhere. I had a toy sand skimmer (which I broke), a toy TIE fighter (which I also broke), and a read-along Return of the Jedi picture book with accompanying record which would play the sound of a ship’s blaster when you were supposed to turn the page. (If you’re too young to be familiar with record players as anything other than “vinyl,” type “Pac-Man record read along” into YouTube to familiarize yourself with the concept. That was my childhood.)
In short, aside from He-Man, Star Wars was pretty much the thing if you were a child of four in 1985. At that age, when I watched movies, I didn’t really pay careful attention to the dialogue, and wasn’t able to follow stories that well. Consequently when the Star Wars trilogy was rereleased in 1995, I rewatched it eagerly. Once I got to Return of the Jedi, I was struck by what I thought was a particularly bizarre scene. In the beginning of the movie, Princess Leia, disguised as a bounty hunter, infiltrates Jabba the Hutt’s palace in order to rescue Han Solo. She pretends to have captured Chewbacca, and engages Jabba to negotiate a price for handing him over. In doing so, Leia pretends to speak (or evidently does speak, via some sort of voice modification device) a language Jabba doesn’t. He employs the recently acquired C-3PO as an intermediary. As near as I can tell, this is how the exchange goes (transcription is my own; accent marks indicate where the main stress is):
Leia: Yaté. Yaté. Yotó. (SUBTITLE: “I have come for the bounty on this Wookiee.”)
C-3PO relays this message and Jabba says he’ll offer 25,000 for Chewie.
Leia: Yotó. Yotó. (SUBTITLE: “50,000, no less.”)
C-3PO relays this message and Jabba asks why he should pay so much.
Leia: Eí yóto.
The above isn’t subtitled,  but Leia pulls out a bomb and activates it.
c-3po: Because he’s holding a thermal detonator!
Jabba is impressed by this and offers 35,000.
Leia: Yató cha.
The above isn’t subtitled, but Leia deactivates the bomb and puts it away.
c-3po: He agrees.
Order is restored.
I want you to remember that I was in seventh or eighth grade at the time that I was rewatching this. I was not a “language” guy at that point by any stretch of the imagination. I never dreamed that a human could invent a language, and even if I had, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with a good reason for one to do so. Furthermore, up to that point, I’d never studied a second language, and the prospect filled me with dread (I had enough trouble understanding my Spanish-speaking relatives who always spoke too fast for me).
But even so, I knew something was wrong here. How on earth does Leia say the same thing twice and have it mean something different the second time? Even if we take C-3PO for an unreliable translator (he is quite loquacious, after all), that applies only to the last two phrases. How could one expect to have an unreliable subtitle? Subtitles are supposed to lie outside the world of the film. If you can’t rely on a subtitle provided by the film’s creators, how can you rely on anything?
In trying to resolve this conflict, it occurred to me that the only plausible explanation for this aberrant phenomenon is that the language itself was correct, but worked differently from all other human languages. In our languages (take English, for example), a word’s meaning can be affected by the context it’s in, but if you control for context, the word will always mean the same thing. Thus, if you’re telling a story about your dog, and you use the word “dog” several times throughout the story, it will still refer to a fur-covered animal that barks and covets nothing so highly as table scraps. This is fairly standard and uncontroversial.
What would happen if a language didn’t do that, though?
Take, for example, the word I have transcribed as yotó above. What if it changed its meaning over the duration of a discourse? Naturally, one would have to define a discourse, but I think it’s fair to consider this conversation featuring Leia, Jabba, and C-3PO a single discourse, so we can leave that concern aside for the moment. What if the word yotó has several definitions? Specifically, what if the first time it’s used in a conversation it means “this wookiee”; the second time it’s used it means “50,000”; and the third time it’s used it means “no less” (or the rough equivalent of those)? The same, then, applies for all other words in the language. That would resolve the ambiguity. How could one possibly use such a language? Well, they are all aliens (Star Wars, recall, takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). Maybe they’re just better at this stuff than humans. Why not?
This was where my brain went while rewatching Return of the Jedi for the first time. At some future date I may have shared this with a friend, but if I did, the response was likely an eyeroll. This quirk was just an unimportant detail in an otherwise fantastic movie. Why bother about it?
And so that’s pretty much where my thought experiment died. I didn’t take it any further, and no one was  really interested, so I didn’t think about it again until college.
But that, of course, was a different era—a pre-internet era. Who does a teenager have to share news with other than their family, friends, and teachers? Who do they come in contact with? In 1995, that’s pretty much only the people who live near you and with whom you interact on a daily basis. How would you ever get ahold of anyone else? How would I have known that someone in the Bay Area, let’s say—less than five hundred miles away—had the same idea I’d had and also found that exchange interesting? In 1995, there was no way.
Then the internet happened.
Yes, the internet had been around for a while in 1995, but it wasn’t a thing that just anyone could have access to. America Online changed all that. Pretty soon it became a thing to race home from school and go into a chatroom with a bunch of random people to talk about . . . nothing. And that was how we entertained ourselves—for hours. What a world, where you could chat with someone who lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about how Soundgarden rules!
As it turns out, though, I wasn’t the only person to pick up on this. Another conlanger I’d later meet at the First Language Creation Conference, Matt Haupt, asked exactly the same question, and devoted a blog post to deconstructing that scene specifically. And we weren’t the only ones. The ubese language has its own entry on the Wookieepedia (yes, that’s a thing) where contributors have written up an entire backstory for the language that is, first of all, not a full language, and, ultimately, poorly constructed and not worthy of serious consideration.

From The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, The Words Behind World-Building by David J. Peterson, published on September 29, 2015 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by David J. Peterson, 2015.

About David J. Peterson

David J. Peterson began creating languages in 2000, received his MA in Linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, in 2005, and cofounded the Language Creation Society in 2007.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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