Lost in Translation: Communicating Past Language Barriers and Maneuvering Amidst Different Cultures

25 Best Stargate SG-1 Episodes | Den of Geek

This author has little problem with the practice of reading fanfic. Her review of Richard Paolinelli’s ongoing Star Trek* fan fiction story (check it out, it is good) is proof of this. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that last year, this writer ran across a very intriguing fan fiction tale written by Crossover Queen (also known as Vathara). It turns out we are both fans of Stargate SG-1*, a great sci-fi series which ran for ten years and which was based upon the 1994 film Stargate*.

Not long ago, this author was introduced to another fanfic writer called Kryal, who wrote a crossover between SG-1 and Avatar: The Last Airbender*. You may find that piece here. (Warning, Kryal has said there is no sequel planned for this story. You will wish there was, but it will not be forthcoming. Sorry.) Along with Vathara’s tale, a crossover between SG-1 and the Japanese anime Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress* (available here, with the prologue here), this author read and re-read the two fanfics several times. Yes, readers, they are that good.

Here we have illustrations of one of the benefits of writing fan fiction mentioned previously at Song. If your intent is to become a best-selling novelist, then writing (or reading) fan fiction with an eye to gaining skill in the craft of storytelling is a viable plan. Plus, as Vathara and Kryal have proved, writing fan fiction lets you play around with a variety of interesting ideas. The one which is the focus of this post is that dangerous yet exciting event known as “first contact.”

Due to the plethora of science fiction tales on the market, most of us think about “first contact” in terms of humans encountering new, alien races. While this may come to pass someday, the fact is that “first contact” is an event which has occurred throughout human history. Most of the time, however, we think of it less as a clash of cultures and languages and more as the work of diplomats and envoys. It is rare for moderns to consider that these things can and do happen to ordinary people who may or may not be suited for the task of making “first contact” with other people. Or who may find it more trying than others do.

Kryal’s SG-1/Avatar tale, titled “The Dragon-King’s Temple,” follows this platform in an interesting way. In “The Dragon-King’s Temple” two members of Stargate Command and two people from the cast of A:TLA are captured by the antagonists of the Stargate universe. While investigating an ice planet, Major Samantha Carter and Doctor Janet Fraser are stunned and brought aboard a Goa’uld ha’tak (pyramidal cargo ship). Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation and Toph Bei Fong, the self-proclaimed greatest Earthbender in the world, are captured when the Goa’uld visit their home planet. They are then brought to the ha’tak for observation.

The two SGC personnel meet the kids and begin to work with them to escape the ship. But one small thing makes their combined efforts harder than they might be otherwise: neither the kids nor the SGC personnel can understand one another. Zuko has to hammer out a mishmash of English and his normal language to communicate with Sam and Janet, which Toph listens to and learns, though she does not engage in the same activity.

Some would see this as a normal constraint. The four are from different worlds – of course they would not understand one another. Except that, if one is a fan of SG-1, they know that a language barrier this deadly is rarely explored in the series. In fact, most of the aliens and humans which SG-1 encounter speak English. The team’s resident linguist, anthropologist, and translator must typically struggle to understand a few key phrases when the team makes contact with another race, not the entire tongue itself.

“Dragon-King’s Temple” also adds the distinct fanon (fan-canon) tidbit that the Stargate, when it is often used by a planet’s residents, will download a portion of their vocabulary into its database. When incoming travellers from a different planet arrive, the new world’s Stargate shares a portion of this download with them allowing easy universal communication from planet to planet. (And I will add that whichever fan came up with that idea is/was an evil genius, because that little idea neatly solves a lot of in-series plot and worldbuilding issues. 🙂 )

Awesome facts about Avatar: The Last Airbender - DankFacts

The problem in Kryal’s story is that no one has traveled to Zuko and Toph’s world in millennia. And Earth’s Stargate, because it has no record of their language, cannot bestow English on them in turn. If it cannot decipher the tongue travellers use, there is not much point in the Stargate replacing bits of the newcomers’ own language with a foreign one. So even when they are escorted to the safety of Stargate Command, Zuko and Toph still cannot talk to the residents of the SGC without resorting to action, gestures, and broken sentences.

It makes an already gripping story more compelling, as there are things the children could tell the adults if they could understand what was being said. Likewise, the SGC personnel would have an easier time learning why the two alien kids are so wary of them if they could speak to them in complete sentences. As things stand, however, their limited vocabulary and the dangers that beset them all during the course of the tale make information sharing quite difficult.

First contact stories like this were not so rare, once upon a time. There is a much-memed episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation which sees Captain Picard struggling to understand an alien captain who can only speak in metaphors. The alien’s race has to approach things from the side, as it were; they have no way to communicate directly with those who use metaphors primarily as literary and poetic devices. By the end of the episode, Picard has finally put together how the aliens’ speech patterns work and is able to talk to the crew of the alien captain’s ship after the latter dies saving his life.

Andre Norton’s first Witch World* novel and some subsequent ones, namely Gate of the Cat*, follow a similar premise. When he first arrives in the land of Estcarp, Simon Tregarth has no idea what his future wife Jaelithe is saying to him. His prospective commander and friend, Koris of Gorm, must teach him their language by pointing at things and naming them. Simon must repeat the words back until he has a good grasp of the Estcarpian tongue. Kelsey McBlair, the heroine of Gate of the Cat, must engage in a similar game after her arrival at the Valley of Green Silences.

With the potential development of universal translators, modern writers tend not to think of the barrier that language presents. Or if they do, they only consider it with regard to alien species from outer space. All too often they forget the difficulty humans have had – and continue to have – talking to members of their own species. Drop a modern Harvard student with no knowledge of any language but English in, say, Tibet, and he will find communicating with others a challenge indeed.

Even people who share a country can find it difficult to understand one another through the spoken or written word. There are certain places in the world which have their own dialect, entirely separate from the “main” language spoken and written in their home nation. Unless you or your translator have spent time there, know someone who has, or know a third language the other person recognizes, communicating with a man from one of these places will be quite difficult.

Kryal’s story is, therefore, a very valuable read. Not only is it entertaining, playing with concepts that few established authors consider, but it presents a viable example of how humans can interact with one another when they do not know precisely what the other person is saying. Automatic trust, hatred, and the like are not reasonable in most cases, and Toph and Zuko remain rightly cautious in their dealings with the SGC. It is aggravating from an SG-1 fan standpoint, as fans know the team would not hurt or exploit the kids, but it is understandable nonetheless.

It also allows them to build trust as the story progresses, something which is often skipped over in many modern stories. Trust is more fragile, in some ways, than hope; once broken it is nigh impossible to re-establish. So the fact that SG-1 consistently works through the frustration to prove that they are worthy of the kids’ confidence even as it permits the children to be wary makes the story more believable than it might be otherwise, fan fiction or not.

Following that thread, Vathara’s fan crossover story, “Track of the Apocalypse,” does the same thing. Language is less of a barrier in her tale because the Kabaneri Stargate has a record of Hinomoto’s tongue, and so SG-1 has an internal manual that lets them speak to the crew of the Iron Fortress (a.k.a. Koutetsujou) with ease. Nevertheless, some misconceptions and fears are unavoidable.

The first of these relates to the Koutetsujou itself. For those who have not seen the series, the hayajiro is an armored nightmare covered in Kabane (zombie) blood. This is due to the fact that said hayajiro must barrel through hordes of the undead to get from station to station in one piece – something which SG-1does not know. With no super-armored, extremely infectious zombies in sight, when they first see the Koutetsujou they naturally assume the worst. Rather than go to the “Doomtrain” and introduce themselves, they explore the desolate city which is home to the Stargate.

In the process they wake up the sleeping horde of Kabane that inhabit the city, meaning that the Iron Fortress has to come to their rescue. Then one of the Koutetsujou’s defenders is bitten and begins to turn into a zombie himself. With no way to stop the virus and the need to remove the threat or let the whole hayajiro become infected, the man has to commit suicide right in front of the team.

As first contacts go, this one is a doozy, for both sides. SG-1 has to grapple with a real life zombie virus that spreads so fast that those who are infected have to commit suicide to protect their fellows from joining the hordes of the undead. Meanwhile, the tired crew of the Iron Fortress – who have endured the fall of their station, the betrayal of their prince, the madness of their shogun, and the fall of Hinomoto’s government – are left wondering who these strangers are. And why, in heaven’s name, they were wandering around a swallowed city arousing a sleeping Kabane horde with their scent like a pack of fools.

10 Things You Didn't Know about Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

This is not an environment that lends itself to immediate trust. Nor, thankfully, does it lead to immediate suspicion and hatred. It does, however, mean that both sides have to make allowances for what the others may not know. They also have to realize that there are certain things they will not automatically understand and which will need to be clarified for both sides to survive peaceably together. Because in a world ravaged by zombies, survival is the name of the game.

Thankfully, though, Vathara points out that survival does not mean “every man for himself!” The Koutetsujou crew is not only worried about their own lives, but the continued existence of Hinomoto and the larger world around them. Fortified train stations supplied by hayajiro are cramped and crowded, making living conditions difficult for everyone. Add to this the fact that stations and trains can both be swallowed by Kabane, and you have a country on the brink of extinction. If they do not find a way to stop the Kabane and defeat them once and for all, then Hinomoto will cease to exist.

So while SG-1’s arrival brought tragedy, it also brought hope. And although the team is in dire straits, they have locals who know the territory willing to teach them how to defend themselves. One side wants to save their nation, their culture, and their people. The other wants to help them do that, and also get home unbitten and preferably not undead. Despite the need to build trust slowly, the end goals for both intertwine so well that neither the Koutetsujou crew nor SG-1 even considers shooting first and asking questions later – unless they are shooting at the Kabane. ;P

It has been a long, long time since I saw a crossover in professional media which recognized the necessity of building trust slowly, while also acknowledging that there are reasons for distrust but not for violence. Most modern media crossovers in the West take the tack of having various characters fight one another to prove who is stronger, better, et cetera. And that is….boring. Certain fandoms may lend themselves to these debates, but these are discussions. Or arguments, depending on how heated matters become.

Debates do not make for good stories. A good story includes believable (i.e. consistent) characters, settings, and scenarios. Therefore, if a team of explorers landed on a world currently experiencing a zombie apocalypse, they would not shoot the people from the heavily armored train coming to their rescue. A couple of psychokinetic kids would not be considered lab rats or bargaining chips by said explorers, either. Seeing that they have a common enemy, the people these explorers would encounter would likely be more inclined to attack said antagonist and worry about how much they should or should not say to the strangers later.

None of this is to say that a writer cannot include a cool fight scene or two in their story. A good example of such writing also comes from the Stargate franchise, specifically Stargate: Atlantis*, where Christopher Judge’s Teal’c and Jason Momoa’s Ronon dueled for over an hour. It was not just the Atlantean expedition laying bets on these two characters’ bout, but fans as well. The general characteristics of the two made arranging the match quite easy for the story writers, who wisely left the end result up in the air.

The reason they did not give the audience an answer as to who would have won the fight is because such things are, ultimately, up to the fans. The writers’ job is to tell a good story, and tell it well. Adding a little fan service here and there shows they respect, listen to, and like their audience. But said audience does not get to dictate how the story is written, since they will never come to a consensus on what a proper ending would be. They can, rightly, argue against a writer’s betrayal of them and the story. But they have no right to tell the author to betray the rest of the audience, his characters, his tale, and/or his own conscience in order to satisfy the fans’ desires.

If you are considering writing first contact tales, future authors, then keep Kryal and Vathara’s fanfics in mind. Yes, these are “fan stories” outside of established canon. Yes, they are not “professionally published” stories. No, they are not going to be for everyone. And if you are coming into them cold – that is, you have never been a fan of Stargate SG-1, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Kabaneri no Koutetsujou, and/or done a minimum of research on these franchises – then they are not going to make much sense right out of the – well, ‘Gate.

But with a little effort on your part, you will find that they each offer viable blueprints for how to attack the problems inherent to the clash of cultures that has been going on since at least the Tower of Babel. And they offer it to future authors in a fun, readable style peppered with humor, subtle worldbuilding, and great characterization. As instruction manuals go, that is more than a bit impressive.

So go on, get out of here! Go read “The Dragon-King’s Temple” and “Track of the Apocalypse” already! And be sure to leave both Kryal and Vathara some feedback. They’ve earned it! 😀

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue. Her most recent piece is available in Planetary Anthology: Sol. Order them today!

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer. For other stories which deal with the tricky concept of “first contact,” check out Yakov Merkin’s Galaxy Ascendant series, Alexander Hellene’s Swordbringer trilogy, and Monalisa Foster’s Ravages of Honor. Don’t wait, pick them up today!

4 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: Communicating Past Language Barriers and Maneuvering Amidst Different Cultures

  1. This subject is timely for me as I’d like to re-start work on one of my stalled fiction works. Have early 21st century protagonist get sucked through spacetime portal where encounters retrograde descendants of 23rd century starship crew on alien planet. They originally spoke a sort of futuristic English, but over a couple of centuries as they lost technical & scientific knowledge and gained knowledge of their new planet the language would have changed. And the protagonist needs to be able to at least have a minimal gist of what the starship descendants are saying until one of them teaches him how they talk.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Trauma: How It Affects a Character’s Perceptions Before, During, and After Healing | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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