Technobabble on screen:

Translating science fiction films

By Monika Wozniak (Sapienza University of Rome, Italy)

Abstract & Keywords

This paper attempts a preliminary survey of relatively unexplored issues related to the translation of science fiction, both in television and cinema. In order to better understand the challenges met by the translators of this particular film and TV genre, in the first part of the essay some specific functions of the science fiction language are explored, namely its importance in the creation of the “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin 1979) vital to the ontological extension and the technological intensification of the future/parallel/alternate worlds proposed by science fiction (Bandiroli 2008). While visual representation is fundamental to achieve the effect of cognitive estrangement in film and TV, it must be corroborated by the dialogue, which is a key factor in creating an equilibrium between the visionary force of the futuristic world and the familiarity of a recognizable situation that will enable the viewer to develop an emotional link with the story and its protagonists. The second part of the paper focuses on three different translation issues regarding film and TV science fiction. The first issue is an extensive presence of various neologisms, typical of science fiction language. The second issue discussed is a recurrent problem of familiar patterns of polite forms used in unfamiliar situations (such as, for example, encounters with alien forms of life). Finally, translation problems stemming from the American-centered nature of film and TV science fiction are briefly considered. The analysis is based primarily on the Star Trek TV series and feature films.

Keywords: science-fiction, audiovisual translation, cinematographic genre, politeness, film dialogue

©inTRAlinea & Monika Wozniak (2014).
"Technobabble on screen:"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Across Screens Across Boundaries
Edited by: Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli, Elena Di Giovanni & Linda Rossato
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1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to make a reconnaissance into translation issues related to the science fiction genre both in television and cinema, a topic that has often been neglected, or rather unexplored. In the first place, a genre-oriented approach is not yet very popular within AVT studies. Although some preliminary investigation has already been undertaken, both general (Karamitroglou 2000; Raemel 2004; Pettit 2004; Bruti and Perego 2010; etc.) and concerning given genres,[1] methodologies and perspectives of this kind of research are not yet well defined. Secondly, visual SF[2] is lightly regarded among film and television genres, being often considered a kind of marginal, second-rate popular entertainment.[3] It has therefore “tended to be an under-analysed, and under-theorised area of academic study” (Hockley 2001: 26).[4] Finally, both literary and visual science fiction studies tend to neglect the linguistic aspect of the genre, being more concerned with its ontological dimension, dystopian and utopian visions, and gender or race issues. In other words, they are “primarily descriptive and taxonomic, focused on delineating and chronicling content and themes” (Cheney 2009: XV). This attitude is even more pronounced as regards visual SF, which is often considered “an obvious showcase for spectacular state-of-the-art technologies of visual, sound and above all special-effects design, (…) well-suited to the construction of simplified, action-oriented narratives with accordingly enhanced worldwide audience appeal” (Langford 2005: 191).

While such statements are correct, at least to a certain degree, I would like to argue that film and TV science fiction is characterized, nevertheless, by some particular or even unique features that render it a most interesting area of study in AVT. Given the complexity of the issue, this article does not aspire to offer an exhaustive analysis of all its aspects, but rather intends to give a preliminary overview of its crucial points, to be investigated and scrutinised further. In the first part of the article I deal with the definition of SF, attempting to individuate the features of the genre and its film and TV incarnations which have a direct impact on the functionality of the language, differentiating it from other genres. Then, I discuss the salient traits of dialogue in science fiction and examine the most recurrent problems related to their translation, in order to verify if they present the translator with challenges specific to this particular film and TV genre.

The examples given to illustrate issues discussed in the paper come from the Star Trek series and films. Such a choice of reference material seemed the most logical, since it has been rightly noticed that “in many ways Star Trek, in all its incarnations, is what people think of as science fiction” (Hockley 2001: 28). In its long run, since The Original Series (TOS) of 1966-1969 up to the recent cinematographic reboots by J. J. Abrams (2009; 2013), Star Trek has proliferated in no fewer than six TV series and twelve feature films, tackling almost every possible plot, scenario and issue associated with the SF genre, and encompassing the changes and transformations of both film and TV science fiction over almost five decades. Furthermore, its worldwide diffusion has resulted in an amazingly rich corpus of translations, which not only embrace many languages but are also layered over a considerable diachronic span. In order to substantiate the thesis that the issues concerning AVT of science fiction are universal, regardless of the genre’s evolution over time and of the distinction between film and TV, examples are taken from Star Trek (TOS 1966-1969), Star Trek: Next Generation (TNG 1987-1994), Star Trek: Voyager (VOY 1995-2001), and Star Trek Enterprise (ENT 2001-2005) as far as TV is concerned, and from J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek (ST 2009) and Star Trek into Darkness (StiD 2013) for cinematography.[5] Highly influential and a constant presence in film and TV science fiction for almost five decades (from the 1966-1969 TV Original Series to the recent J.J. Abrams’s film reboots), Star Trek has covered, in its long run, almost all themes and variants of the genre, and has enjoyed popularity in America and abroad. As such, it seemed a particularly fitting corpus material for issues discussed in this article, both from a diachronical as well as a synchronical point of view”

The main languages of translation taken into account are Italian and Polish, but occasional references to other languages are made in order to counter-check the validity of the observations and conclusions that were reached.[6]

2. Science fiction as a genre

Any attempt to define science fiction may prove to be surprisingly frustrating.[7] As J. P. Telotte (2001) notes:

Although the genre certainly sports an iconography that immediately asserts a kind of identity and one with which the average filmgoer is usually quite familiar – rockets, robots, futuristic cities, alien encounters, fantastic technology, scientists (mad or otherwise) – these icons or generic conventions have [...] never quite satisfactorily served to bracket it off as a discrete form, something we might easily categorize and thus set about systematically studying (Telotte 2001: 4-5).

Furthermore, visual SF often incorporates elements of other cinematographic and TV genres, which makes it even more difficult to clearly classify its exclusive characteristics. Besides, like all genres, science fiction is not a static construct, but a dynamic and changeable one, which reflects transformations of its historical and cultural context as well as the evolution of its audience’s expectations. Nevertheless, some structural components inherent to science fiction are constant and universal: it is exactly on these characteristics and their potential impact on translation issues that this paper proposes to focus.

Unlike many other genres which shape their fictional realities as a reflection of the true world and insist on making them as recognizable and plausible as possible, a science fiction narrative is based on the condition of “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin 1979), and its main formal device is defamiliarisation paired with the creation of imaginary worlds. “Reportage says this happened; naturalistic fiction could have happened; fantasy could not have happened; science fiction has not happened, which includes might happen, will not happen, has not happened yet, could have happened in the past but did not” (Delany 1977: 43–4). In other words, the audience is faced with something that will not fit into the existing patterns of verisimilitude, yet is being asserted and explored as a fact.

Differing from the fantasy genre, with which it is sometimes confused, SF needs to create worlds that are unfamiliar but at the same time derived from rational, or at least conceivable, premises anchored in the real situation of the present time (Johnson-Smith 2005: 19-20). In order to achieve this goal, it employs two main strategies that can be defined as ontological extension and technological intensification of the fictional world (Bandiroli 2008: 18-20). In other words, the fictional world of SF, rather than replicating the real world, extends it,[8] broadens its limits to go “where no man has gone before” (ontological extension). Secondly, it also transforms its epistemological and technological contents so as to match them with the extended ontological dimension and to give it credibility as well as justification (technological intensification). In literary SF the successful fulfilment of these two goals is accomplished, of course, by exclusively linguistic means. In visual SF the ontological extension depends mainly on the credibility of the visual representation (it is not a coincidence that science fiction  is one of the film genres that benefited most from the rapid development of computer techniques and special effects), but is corroborated by the dialogue, while the technological and epistemological intensification comes as a combination of both visual and verbal elements of the film. It follows that the verbal aspect of film and TV science fiction, in addition to other functions intrinsic to film, has to fulfil some functions unique only to this genre.

3. Dialogue in science fiction

Visual science fiction is regarded, not without reason, as primarily action-oriented. Obviously, such stories do not favour speech: the characters are too busy fighting evil aliens or saving the world from total disaster to waste time talking. It is undeniable that in many science fiction films the dialogue tends to be flat and banal to the point of being embarrassing and an easy target of mockery:

In particular, the dialogue of most science fiction films, which is generally of a monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like: “Come quickly, there's a monster in my bathtub”; “We must do something about this”; “Wait, Professor. There's someone on the telephone”; “But that's incredible”; and the old American stand-by (accompanied by brow-wiping), “I hope it works!”- are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust (Sontag 1966: 42).

Instead of seeing it as an indicator of the poor artistic quality of visual science fiction, this phenomenon could be interpreted, on the contrary, as a result of the difficulty in constructing a convincing dialogue able to meet the particular exigencies of the genre.

Some functions of film dialogue, so well described in Sarah Kozloff's seminal Overhearing Film Dialogue (Kozloff 2000), do not differ in visual science fiction from other film and TV genres. The dialogue communicates narrative causality, helps to enact plot-turning events, guides the viewer, inserts a thematic message and acts as character revelation. However, such a function as the anchorage of events or support in creating a “realistic” feeling about the fictional world (Kozloff 2000: 48-49) diverge profoundly from most other genres. Since an essential point of visual science fiction is to find a right balance between the visionary force of the futuristic world and the familiarity of a recognizable situation that will enable the viewer to develop an emotional link with the story and its protagonists (Johnson-Smith 2005: 19-21), the dialogue needs to support the credibility of this alien reality and give it a touch of “realism” without losing the sense of wonder it should inspire, while at the same time it must rely on the well-known patterns of contemporary everyday speech in order to make the audience care for the characters and their story. Furthermore, given that visual science fiction often avails itself of other film and TV genres, the dialogue frequently incorporates stylistic mannerisms such as military speech (Star Trek, Starship Troopers, Avatar to name just a few), western-like language (Star Trek, Firefly, Outland) or the dry language of film noir (probably the most famous example being Blade Runner), which need to be at least minimally diversified from the contemporary stylistic patterns familiar to the audience, to endow them with a futuristic flavour. Finally, the dialogue in  science fiction must also assume a function that almost never exists in other film genres, namely that of explaining the world created on the screen. It's the principle of things being readable: if in a realistic film the protagonist opens a metallic compartment and pulls out a glass container filled with white liquid, the audience won't have any problems interpreting this scene correctly, but if a character in a science fiction film does the same thing, it may need some additional verbal explanation. To create believable dialogue that would flawlessly fulfil all these requirements is without doubt quite an equilibristic undertaking, and very little science fiction dialogue manages to do it successfully. This task becomes even more difficult in translation. The following subparagraphs will briefly examine a few salient aspects specific of visual science fiction dialogue and challenges they may present to translators.

3.1 Verbal representation of the future world

The ontological and epistemological extension of the fictional worlds created in science fiction films makes it necessary to find convincing signifiers for the new signifieds, which have no referents in the reality known to the audience. The quantity of neologisms introduced in a given film or TV series may vary, but it is safe to assert that neologisms are paramount in the vocabulary of science fiction:

It is a call to the fears and pleasures we find in the unknown, in the alien and in the Sublime, an experience facilitated and amplified by the break in reality which demands that we renegotiate our location and its significance at every step (Johnson-Smith 2005: 31).

The list of possible new fictional referents is very long. The Star Trek vocabulary corpus comprises such categories as:

- planets, asteroids, stars and other astronomical objects;

- minerals, plants, animals;

- alien races, individuals, languages, social, political and administrative structures;

- illnesses, medicines, food, drinks, games, sports;

- appliances, devices, instruments;

- weapons, transport and communication technologies;

- scientific and mechanical terminology, units of measurement of time, speed, quantity etc.[9]

The mechanisms for creating neologisms differ, depending on the kind of signified they refer to. The least problematic in translation are the proper names of planets, alien races, individuals etc., usually kept unaltered in the translation save for pronunciation, phonological issues or unwanted associations they could provoke in the target language. However, in some cases unexpected difficulties in translation arise even here. Such is the case, for example, of alien races, which need to be transformed according to derivational rules of a given language in order to make them plausible. Therefore, “Vulcan” (humanoid from the planet Vulcan) becomes “Vulkanier” in German translation, “Vulcano” in Spanish or “Vulcain” in French. However, many languages, among them Italian and Polish, use a variety of suffixes to create names of nationalities/ races, and the choice of the most convincing one is not always obvious or easy. As a result, the same term may be translated in another way by different translators[10] to the detriment of the coherence and plausibility of the fictional world: in Italian “Vulcan” has been rendered as “Vulcan”, “Vulcanita” or “Vulcaniano”, sometimes even within the same TV series (TNG), while Polish translations alternate the names “Wolkan”, “Wolkanianin”, “Wulkanianin” and “Wulkańczyk”.

Other neologisms can be divided into two main categories: those that refer to the new ontological elements actually shown on the screen and those that describe abstract concepts or objects not visually present in the film, but only referred to verbally, such as names of unknown ailments, minerals, technologies etc. In this case, the most common procedure is to follow the derivational patterns known to the audience, in order to facilitate the viewers' task of surmising what these new words refer to and also, even more importantly, to create the impression of plausibility and establish the “realism” of a term. One of the frequent strategies is to use affixes typical to a given category of the words, often combined with a phonetic association that should lead the audience to the desired semantic association. In the Star Trek series, which is a veritable gold mine as far as different neologisms are concerned, for example, such materials and substances as “boridium”, “duranium”, “trellium”, “cortenide” and “styrolite” are mentioned. The use of the affixes -um and -ite (-ide), employed regularly in the derivation of minerals and in chemistry, confer to these words an air of precision and scientific credibility, but also let the viewer guess (more or less) what their denotation is. This type of neologism does not create particular difficulties in translation, provided that similar derivational elements exist in the target language. Such is, in fact, the situation in the German language, where the Star Trek neologisms given above remain unaltered (“boridium”, “trellium”) or only slightly adjusted (“cortenit”, “styrolit”). In Italian translation the suffix -ite (-ide) does not create a problem, since it is a Latin  morpheme borrowed from Greek and used on a regular basis to the present day, but the -um ending is another matter. Present in Latin, it disappeared in the evolution of the Italian language, devolving into the desinence -io, -eo, -o (therefore Latin “calcium” became Italian “calcio”, “ferrum” – “ferro”, “helium” – “elio”). The Italian translations, however, retained the ending -um, which resulted in an archaisation effect. In Polish translation, where the same problem arose, the translators were less coherent, sometimes opting for the archaic -um (“dilitium”) and sometimes adjusting the names to the modern norms, not always to the desired effect (for example, “trellium” became “trel” in the Polish version, giving rise to an unfortunate association with a bird's trill and the saying “trele-morele”, which means “nonsense”).

Collocations (noun compounds or adjective plus noun) are frequently used in neologisms related to technological aspects of the fictional world, because in this case it is important to suggest that new devices and appliances are a logical development of the technologies used today. So, such terms as 'photonic torpedo', 'phaser rifle', 'subnucleonic radiation' and 'plasma infusion unit' add new adjectives to the existing names or blend two known concepts into one, thus giving the new inventions an air of scientific plausibility. The technical talk, so-called technobabble (or, in the case of Star Trek, treknobabble) is a distinctive constituent in cognitive estrangement of the fictional world, on the one hand, and has a great impact on its overall plausibility on the other. However, to create a consistent futuristic vocabulary is not easy, and technobabble has not earned its derisive name without a reason, as the following random example from TOS shows:

The Chemocite! If we vent plasma from the warp core into the cargo hold, we may be able to start a cascade reaction to the Chemocite. Then we can modulate the reaction to create an inversion wave in the warp field and force the ship back into normal space. If I time it just right I should be able to get us close enough to Earth to make an emergency landing (quoted from: Johnson-Smith 2005: 102).

The efficacy of the translation depends in these cases not only on the translator’s linguistic intuition but also on their basic knowledge of technical terminology, since otherwise they could invent a term not only implausible, but even laughable (for example “long-range sensors” in Polish translations of Star Trek became “dalekosiężne czujniki” [long-reaching sensors]). Not all terms may be easily translated literally: transforming “photonic torpedo” into “siluro fotonico”, “torpeda fotonowa” or “Photoniktorpedo” does not pose a problem, but, for example, a “holodeck”,[11] a fundamental element of the Star Trek universe, proved rather difficult. In various languages the translators opted for different strategies, not always with satisfactory outcomes.[12] A single unconvincing term may not be very important, but if the technobabble is always at risk of becoming ridiculous in the original film, it is even more difficult to transform it into an acceptable dialogue in the translation.

3.2. The talk of the future: balancing familiarisation and estrangement

Film dialogue, as it is well known, is a polifunctional, artificial, non-spontaneous discourse prefabricated in order to seem natural and spontaneous (Kozloff  2000; Freddi and Pavesi 2009; Pavesi 2009; Perego and Taylor 2012; among others). As part of a realist setting, “it maximizes familiarity and is hitched to a megastory (history, geography), itself valorised, which doubles and illuminates it, creating expectations based on the empirical notions as close as possible to the spectator’s experience” (Brooke-Rose 1988: 243). In science fiction, however, the notion of “natural and spontaneous” becomes all but obvious.

As Vivian Sobchack rightly observed, the dull, flat language of reality is often used to “lend a documentary quality to SF cinema” (Sobchack 1997: 75), and, in fact, a dry and matter-of-fact style seems appropriate to the typical setting of most SF films, such as laboratories, starships, space installations and military bases. The protagonists of science fiction movies are more often than not scientists, astronauts or soldiers who tend to use formulaic and abstract jargon “which is coolly functional and essential to quick and clear communication” (Sobchack 1997: 151-152). Still, as an integral part of an imaginary future reality, the dialogue ought to, in fact, sound different than the everyday talk of the present time, since it is only logical to suppose that patterns of communication will change along with all of the other transformations in the world. In theory, then, to be convincing, science fiction dialogue should defamiliarise well-known conversational patterns. 

Nevertheless, very few visual sci-fi productions (or literary works) have seriously tried to create a new way of speaking for the future worlds (the most famous example being Burgess's/Kubrick's Clockwork Orange). The reasons for this reluctance are obvious. In the first place, to effectively imagine the evolution of our way of speaking is extremely difficult. In the second place, more importantly, since the dialogue in sci-fi has to explain those visual elements of the fictional world which may be incomprehensible to the audience, it would be counterproductive to make it too complex for the audience to readily follow it. The cognitive estrangement is, therefore, limited almost exclusively to  neologisms and technobabble, while the effect of verisimilitude is usually entrusted less to the addition of new patterns, than to the elimination of some marked elements, such as slang, dialecticisms, vulgarisms, culturally specific metaphors or phraseological expressions. All these components of dialogue, desirable in a realist narrative since they make it more colourful and anchor it in a given geo-historical context, can easily be perceived as dissonance or incongruity within the framework of science fiction.

In theory, such language should not create difficulties in translation, providing the translator does not give way to excessive linguistic creativity. To indulge in the temptation to introduce some expression that is too heavy with connotations, or to render the dialogue excessively colloquial, can in fact result in a divergence between the futuristic setting of the fictional world presented onscreen and an all-too-familiar association with a concrete cultural and social context of the present day. For example, a simple  exchange, “'Are you all right, Captain?' 'Never better'”, was transformed into “'W porządku?' 'Malinowo'”[13] (ENT). Use of the slang expression “malinowo” made the star ship captain and his first officer sound like a couple of Polish teenagers from the 1990s, with a very bizarre and unintentionally comical effect. Similarly, the rendering of an admiral’s statement, “I assume you are loitering here to learn what efficiency rating I plan to give your cadets”, with an idiomatic and extremely colloquial expression, “Chce pan zapuścić żurawia do ocen kadetów?”[14] (Star Trek: Wrath of Khan), creates a stylistic dissonance. The introduction of a direct cultural allusion in an unexpected frame can also create a hilarious effect, as the following example from a French translation clearly shows. In an episode of Star Trek – the Original Series (TOS), Spock, the pointy-eared Vulcan science officer of the starship “Enterprise”, muses over a woman he has just met:

Here on Stratos everything is incomparably beautiful and pleasant. The High Advisor’s charming daughter Droxine particularly so. The name Droxine seems appropriate to her. I wonder: can she retain such purity and sweetness of mind and be aware of the life of the people on the surface of the planet?

This monologue, perhaps not particularly satisfactory from a stylistic point of view, became even more inadequate in the first French translation:

Ici, sur Stratos, tout n’est que luxe, calme and volupté, comme l’a si bien dit un poète terrien. La fille du Grand Officier ne dépare en rien cette cite idyllique. Comme le disait Plassius son père, c’est le plus beau des chefs d’ouvres. Une chose m’étonne. Elle semble être confinée dans un univers calfeutré et ethéré.[15]

The French text accumulates, in fact, a number of changes that turned the already unconvincing English version into an extremely artificial, pretentious and implausible bit of speech. It is indeed hard to believe that not only would logical, cold-blooded and half-Vulcan Mr. Spock quote Charles Baudelaire, but that in his everyday speech he would use the emphatic syntax “comme le disait Plassius son père” and poetic adjectives such as “calfeutré” and “ethéré”.

The examples quoted above are quite distant from each other in time: the French translation of TOS was made in the 1970s, while Polish translations of Star Trek Enterprise and the feature film Star Trek: Wrath of Khan both date from the early 2000s. Nevertheless, the translation challenges of finding the right discourse register essentially have not changed.

3.3. Politeness in space

Translation problems regarding use of polite forms in SF may be legitimately seen as part of the general issue of rendering science fiction dialogue sufficiently similar to conversational conventions understandable to the audience, yet at the same time defamiliarised enough to increase the effect of the cognitive estrangement of the futuristic context. However, as a particularly complex translation issue that is much discussed in AVT studies, it deserves special consideration.

Visual science fiction, predominantly of American or British origin,[16] shares, naturally, many of the issues concerning the correct use of polite forms in the target language, such as the distinction between the formal and informal “you”, or accurate use of titles and first names. Nevertheless, in science fiction films the interpretation of social distance and courtesy forms may present new and unexpected angles.

The first category of recurrent problems concerns social structures and hierarchies of the future. Numerous utopian or dystopian visions of the future (such as Brave New World, Equilibrium, Logan's Run and Matrix, to name just a few), often present a transformed human society based on a different social order. Dystopias time and again introduce the scenario of a totalitarian regime and a new class system. In the original version of the films, these transformations have, however, very little impact on the polite forms. Sometimes a name is invented for the new social class: in Equilibrium the members of the ruling class are reunited in the pseudo-religious order of Grammaton Clerics; in The Handmaid's Tale the women who are able to conceive children are trained and forced to serve as sexual slaves – “handmaids” – for the leaders;  in Brave New World, based on Aldous Huxley's novel, the population is divided into five casts – Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. Nonetheless, other than including the new title, the politeness patterns remain more or less the same, and it is left to the translator to decide whether they should follow the procedures usually used in the translation from English, or rather change them in order to match the cognitive estrangement of the film.

The social relations in other typical SF settings such as space ships, space installations and military bases run according to a hierarchical order, as well. The naval language of the space ships and the language of the star troopers or in the futuristic army on Earth do not differ from the present patterns of military language in American armed forces. As a consequence, the issues of translation are very similar to those present in all war films and films set in a military context. For example, in almost all European languages it is difficult to adequately recreate the American chain of command in the navy, given that the system of military rank differs considerably in various countries. In military/war films translators usually tend to replace the English terms with equivalent military ranks in the target culture: for example, the rank of lieutenant commander Harmon Rabb, the protagonist of the popular TV series J.A.G. (1995-2005), was translated into the rank of “capitano di corvetta” of the Italian Military Navy. In SF films such a substitution is not always recommended: despite all the parallels between the Navy and the Starfleet, “capitano di corvetta” does not seem an appropriate rank for an officer on the bridge of a spaceship. Similarly, when in the 1990s the first Polish translator of TNG rendered Jean-Luc Picard's rank of spaceship captain as “komandor”, which is the correct equivalent rank of the commander of a military ship in Poland, the overwhelmingly negative reaction of Polish ST fans resulted in a change to the less controversial, if not completely exact “kapitan” (which in Polish nomenclature indicates the commander of a merchant ship) in TNG’s reruns on TV. A frequent solution for simplifying the original rank system: in Italian translations of ST almost all junior officers become simply “tenente” (lieutenent), not without some confusing effects when it comes to standard expressions in hierarchical interaction, such as the use of “sir” while addressing a senior officer.

 However, probably the most complicated problem connected with politeness forms in science fiction concerns the social relations between humans and non-humans. In SF, humans interact with two main categories of non-humans: alien races and talking machines (robots and computers). Encounters with extraterrestrials of any possible shape and intelligence, good or evil, friendly or hostile, are one of the central motifs of the science fiction genre. Therefore, contact with various forms of life are frequent and intense. Contrary to what one may think, they do not usually involve direct communication problems. As Meyers (1980: 117) pointed out, somewhat maliciously:

Writers of science fiction seldom spare their characters: they may slam their heroes' ships into planets or send their heroines to kill tigers with knives; they may freeze them into statues on Pluto or shoot them through exploding suns. Hardly any degradation or suffering is spared – with the exception of exposing them to the rigours of learning a foreign language.

This tendency is even more evident in visual SF. In fact, the problem of communication with alien races is usually dealt with by means of telepathy, a universal translator, a babel fish (Adams 1979) or other smart device. Alternatively, the entire galaxy operates on an English basis, or aliens are able to learn it in sixty seconds.[17] There remains, however, a delicate question: how to politely address an E.T.? While English dialogue mostly manages to skip the problem easily, translators must make a choice.

Rather than defamiliarise well-known conversational conventions, as was the case in the situations discussed above, rendering politeness in space requires translators to apply usual etiquette rules to unusual social interactions. Without established guidelines to refer to, SF translators take decisions based on their individual judgement and personal inclinations. When the extraterrestrials in question are humanoid, to employ usual polite forms seems quite natural. However, SF aliens may come in very unusual forms, and deciding whether to address a large, green, octopus-like creature with an informal T-form or a reverent “sir” is not easy, especially when said creature is trying to strangle the human protagonist with its enormous tentacles.

When in doubt, most translations prefer to use formal forms of address. For example, French translators never sway from rigorous courtesy; therefore, when the evil Romulan Nero tortures valiant Captain Pike in J. J. Abrams’s ST 2009, the two gentlemen do not forget for a moment to use the V-form. In the latest ST feature film, STiD, enraged Captain Kirk savagely beats the terrorist Harrison, who surrenders to him, and in the next scene tells him, still in a rage, “Let me explain what’s happening here. You are a criminal. (…) And the only reason why you are still alive is because I am allowing it. So shut your mouth!” In the Italian dubbed version of the movie, Kirk addresses his enemy using the formal “Lei”: “Lasci che le spieghi la situazione. Lei è un criminale. (…) La sola e unica ragione per qui è ancora vivo e perché io permetto che sia così. Dunque adesso chiuda la bocca”.[18] German Kirk uses the formal “Sie”, while French Kirk informs Harrison with exquisite elegance, “Je vais vous expliquer la situation. Vous êtes un criminal. (..) Si vous êtes encore en vie, c’est parce que je le veux bien. Alors fermes-la”.[19] In Polish, Russian and Czech versions, however, the captain is less courteous toward his prisoner, talking to him in the T-form. The shifts in the strategy of translation of polite address forms are noticeable not only in different languages, but also within the same language: in the Italian version of STiD, Dr McKoy, an old friend of Captain Kirk's, uses the T-form when talking with him, but in older dubbed TOS episodes the V-form is prevalent. In Polish and Russian versions of STiD, Harrison, a villain, initially addresses Captain Kirk in V-form, but subsequently shifts to the informal T-form.

The interactions between humans and machines pose fewer problems. Even if SF often introduces highly sophisticated computers and humanised robots, some even endowed with a kind of personality, their status as being inferior to human beings is not only implied, but (almost) always underlined by the tasks they carry out, by their deferential behaviour and – on the linguistic level – by the reverence formulas such as “sir” or even “master” that they use when talking to humans (the comical character of C-3PO from Star Wars springs immediately to mind). Therefore, in the translated films, machines are routinely addressed in T-form (probably only in the French translation is it possible to hear the formal V-form used to address a computer: “Vous vous trompez, l’ordinateur” [you are wrong, computer], says Captain Kirk in one of the episodes of TOS). Of course, the problem of interactions between humans and aliens or machines does not cover all of the problems of politeness in space: there are also exchanges between machines and extraterrestrials, between machines and machines, and between extraterrestrials and other extraterrestrials to consider.

3.4. It is a truth universally acknowledged that aliens always land in the U.S.A.: the “Americanness” of the genre in translation

While science fiction would seem to take us outside of the structuring elements of today’s world through a discourse of fantasy and futurism, the metaphorical transformation always says something about the society, cultural context and historical time in which the production takes place. Given that science fiction films and especially science fiction television series are produced almost exclusively in America, the seemingly “universal” visions of the future are in fact as American as apple pie. However, while in the realist narrative the cultural and ideological context is more or less explicit and is motivated by the geographical and historical framework, in science fiction it remains largely implied and leans heavily on the fixed and unconscious core values of the audience.

This American-centred nature of the genre can create translation problems from at least two points of view. Firstly, the Americanisation of the world prophesized by science fiction may turn out to be irritating, disturbing or even insulting to other audiences. The opening credits of the latest Star Trek series, Enterprise, offer a perfect blend of authentic and computer-generated footage of the human conquest of Space, accompanied by the song “Faith of the Heart”, which could serve as a universal manifesto of human potential. However, the vision of this conquest is completely  Americanized, with no mention of Gagarin or Sputnik. In this context the song loses its “universal” dimension and becomes a declaration of “we the people” (meaning: we the American people). Of course one would not likely go so far as to alter the opening credits of a film. However, in the linguistic transfer of science fiction dialogue, a translator can decide to tone down its American imprint in order to make it more digestible for a non-American audience. This concerns, above all, cases in which elements appear in the original dialogue that are culturally marked not intentionally, a phenomenon that could be defined as an “American way of thinking”. In Star Trek Enterprise, for example, the favourite alcohol of the exotic, blue-skinned Andorians is the “Andorian ale”. The idea that extraterrestrials would brew a liquid called “ale” can clearly come only from a mind that belongs to the Anglo-American culture, and an Italian translator decided, quite reasonably, to change it to “Andorian beer”.

 On the other hand, given that the “Americanness” is in a sense a trademark of the genre, it is also particularly risky to try domestication strategies: to make an astronaut who in the original film is looking forward to having “a baked potato, a big mound of deep-fried onion rings and some grilled mushrooms” for dinner talk about “ziemniaki i kotlet schabowy”,[20] as happened in the Polish translation of the Star Trek Voyager series, is not necessarily the best course of action. Furthermore, some of the cultural references embedded in the narrative discourse can be incomprehensible, or can fail to have an emotional impact on foreign spectators. If we have a look at the multiethnic and multinational image of the future society, such as portrayed, for example, in Star Trek, we can see that it is an all-American vision of a better future, linked directly to the social and racial problems of American society in our time. The ideological message launched by the composition of the Starship will probably not be understood in the same way by a non-American viewer.

4. Conclusion

This short overview of issues related to the translation of visual science fiction is by no means exhaustive or complete. Many interesting aspects of problems discussed above that have only been briefly mentioned deserve further investigation and study. Also, there are other questions not raised here which would make for a fascinating topic of study, such as, for example, the question of the influence of the dialogue on the interpretation of the film’s visual component by the viewer. Given that the fictional world shown in science fiction often includes elements that have no referents in the empirical reality known to the audience, the dialogue’s explanatory function may be crucial for the interpretation of the film. Clearly, then, science fiction is particularly vulnerable to manipulation, especially as far as dubbing is concerned. While manipulation may be found in all dubbed film genres, the realist frame usually allows the audience to maintain at least partial control over what is happening on the screen and put some constraints on the translator’s liberty. In science fiction films there is no possibility to countercheck the things that are presented on the screen.

Yet another aspect of translation that seems to be particularly common in TV science fiction is the problem of internal coherence. “Since translators have power over the internal coherence of the world they not only need to assure that its elements cohere with its ontology in general, but also that there is consistency between various elements inside it” (Guttfeld 2008: 130). As in visual science fiction, this consistency is based not so much on reference to the ontological world but on the internal logic of the futuristic vision, and in order to maintain this consistency, the translator should acquire a deep understanding of this fictional reality. Given that SF productions often run in long cycles (dozens or even hundreds of episodes on TV, multiple sequels in the cinema), mastering their fundamental linguistic binder – the technobabble – in order to use it consistently and coherently not only once, but throughout the whole series or cinematographic saga, becomes a particularly difficult challenge, rendered even more stressful by the menace of what could be called “ferocious fan obsession”. The audience of SF films may not be very large, but it is characterised by a particularly strong attachment and devotion to their focal object. The fans of Star Trek, Doctor Who and Star Wars have detailed knowledge of all aspects of their favourite show and are able to immediately spot every small mistake or omission made by the translators (and insult and denigrate them in online discussions).

Other interesting points would undoubtedly emerge from a diachronic or thematic survey of the genre. While this article puts emphasis on the universal premises of visual science fiction and on the influence they can have on the process of translation, the transformations that visual SF has undergone since the early days of silent cinema to the boom centred in the USA in the 1950s, to the turning point of Star Wars in the late 1970s and the recent dynamic revival of the genre offer vast and inspiring material for translation analysis. It is important to bear in mind, as well, that the general term of SF comprises numerous subgenres, such as hard science fiction, alternate history, dystopian SF, apocalyptic SF and space opera, which, in spite of sharing some general characteristics of the genre, are quite diversified thematically and stylistically.

In fact, as stated at the outset, the purpose of this article was not so much to arrive at definite conclusions as to take a few tentative steps into a topic that awaits further, more in-depth studies. Even this preliminary analysis, however, seems to lead to the conclusion that the specificity of a given genre – in this case the science fiction genre, but it could be any other – has a very real influence on the character of difficulties met in translation. In the case of SF, not only are some translation challenges (such as, for example, making verbal the visual extension of the ontological world) found only in this genre, but also general problems of AVT (such as the question of polite forms) often acquire a new and frequently surprising dimension. Also, a comparative analysis of different AVT techniques applied to the same genre would probably allow the addition of an important contribution to the eternal debate over the characteristics of dubbing and subtitling. It is only logical to suppose that a similarly oriented approach to other cinematographic genres could be equally fruitful and open perspectives on both new and old topics of AVT. Given the dynamic development of research into all aspects of AVT translation, such studies will hopefully soon develop.


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[1] Primarily on situation comedy and TV drama (Romero-Fresco 2009)

[2] The term visual science fiction (interchangeable with its acronym SF), when used in the article without further specification, refers to SF films and television in general as opposed to the literary genre, but does not include graphic art or comics. The difference between cinematographic and TV science fiction is specified only when it seems to have an impact on translation issues.

[3] Literary SF has long been considered to be a trashy, commercially-driven genre (see: Westfahl 2002; Seed 2005 et. al.), and film and TV science fiction tend to be considered even less worthy than their literary counterparts: “Visual science fiction is almost a virtual museum of the forms and ideas found in written SF, dumbed down to varying degrees and with occasional flashes of originality” (Aldiss 2000: 2). Concerning negative criticism of film and TV SF, see also Sobchack (1997).

[4] Hockley is referring to TV SF, but the same may be said about film, or even literary, science fiction.

[5] While the first ten Star Trek films were very closely tied to the TV series, Abrams’s productions have been clearly proposed as mainstream film science fiction, adressed to a wider audience: big blockbusters released worldwide and successfully competing with other major movie pictures, with an estimated international STiD box office gross approaching 500 billion dollars ( (accessed 15 September, 2014).

[6] Since the aim of this paper is to give an overview of general translation matters concerning visual science fiction translation, examples were taken randomly from a number of  translations spanning from the 1970s to 2013 (STiD), .

[7] For an in-depth analysis of SF, in particular visual SF definition problematics (see Cornea 2007: 12-21; Johnson-Smith 2005: 15-38).

[8] Here lies the fundamental ontological difference between the genres of science fiction and fantasy, which replaces the real world with a fantasy one.

[9] An invaluable on-line resource for the exploration of the Star Trek universe and its lexicon is the Memory Alpha ( (accessed 15 September, 2014), the most definitive encyclopedia and reference for everything related to Star Trek (currently containing over thirty-five thousand entries). Available in different languages, it also offers direct comparative material for the translation of neologisms and terminology used in ST series and films.

[10] Given the exceptionally rich vocabulary of the Star Trek universe and the long time span of ST's presence on TV and in the cinema, keeping track of the names attributed to recurrent neologisms is a daunting task and has resulted in many lexical incoherencies between different ST series and movies. The coherence of terminology is indeed a frequent problem in science fiction TV series, especially those with long runs, such as Battlestar Galactica and Stargate, while it is far less problematic in films.

[11] A “Holographic Environment Simulator”, or “holodeck”, for short, is a form of technology used on spaceships in the ST universe for entertainment or training. A typical holodeck consists of a room equipped with a hologrid, enabling holographic projections (see: (accessed 15 September 2014).

[12] “Ponte ologrammi” in Italian, “Simulator” in Czech, “Holocubierta” in Spanish, but in German, French and Polish left as “Holodeck”.

[13] [- All right? - Like a raspberry] (ENT).

[14] [Do you want to take a butcher’s at cadets’ evaluation?]

[15] [Here, on Stratos, all is luxury, calm, and opulence, like it was so well said by a Terran poet. The daughter of the High Officer does not mar in any way this idyllic city. As Plassius her father said, she is the most beautiful of masterpieces. One thing surprises me. She seems confined to a closed and ethereal universe.] (Caron 2006: 158-159)

[16] SF, in particular visual science fiction, emerged as a distinct American genre in the 1950s (Sobchack 2005), and since then, “As the major media producer in the world, home to Hollywood and the largest network and cable TV companies, America dominates the genre and the kinds of science fiction that are made” (Geraghty 2009: 2).

[17] For a detailed discussion of strategies and devices of communication with extraterrestrials in literary and visual SF, see Meyers (1970) and Mossop (1996).

[18] [Let me expain the situation to you. You are a criminal (…) The sole reason why you are still alive is because I am allowing it. So shut your mouth!] In the movie’s official trailer, however, obviously translated by another person, Kirk uses the informal T-form while addressing Harrison.

[19] [I intend to explain the situation to you. You are a criminal. (…) If you are still alive, it is because such is my decision. Therefore be silent].

[20] “potatoes and pork chop” - the epitome of a Polish festive dinner.

About the author(s)

Monika Wozniak is Associate Professor of Polish Language and Literature at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”. Her research has addressed several topics in Children’s Literature and Translation as well as Audiovisual Translation. She
has been guest editor of the special issues of „Przekładaniec. Journal of Literary Translation” (Cracow) on Audiovisual Translation (2008) and on the Fairy Tales Translation (2010).

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Monika Wozniak (2014).
"Technobabble on screen:"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Across Screens Across Boundaries
Edited by: Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli, Elena Di Giovanni & Linda Rossato
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