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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 facto r 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 focu ses 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 pr imarily 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 Scr eens Across Boundaries
Edited by: Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli, Elena Di Giovanni & Linda Rossato
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License .
Permanent URL:
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 tend ed 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 chronic ling
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 sci ence 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 aspec ts, 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 Sta r
Tr ek series and films. Such a choice of reference material se emed the most logical,
since it has been rightly noticed that in many ways Sta r Tr ek, in all its
incarnations, is what people think of as science fiction (Hockley 2001: 28). In its
long run, since The Or igina l Ser ies (TOS) of 1966-1969 up to the recent
cinematographic reboots by J. J. Abrams (2009; 2013), Sta r Tr ek 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 genres evolution
over time and of the distinction between film and TV, examples are taken from Sta r
Tr ek (TOS 1966-1969), Sta r Tr ek: Next Gener a tion (TNG 1987-1994), Sta r Tr ek:
Voya ger (VOY 1995-2001), and Sta r Tr ek Enter pr ise(ENT 2001-2005) as far as TV
is concerned, and from J. J. Abramss Sta r Tr ek (ST 2009) and Sta r Tr ek into
Da r kness(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. Abramss film reboots), Sta r Tr ek 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 observation s 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 audiences expectations.
Nevertheless, some structural components inherent to science fiction are constant
and universal: it is ex actly 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 an d 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 ha ppened; naturalistic
fiction could ha ve ha ppened; fantasy could not ha ve ha ppened; science fiction ha s
not ha ppened, which includes might ha ppen, will not ha ppen, ha s not ha ppened
yet, could ha ve ha ppened in the pa st but did not (Delany 1977: 434). 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 disast er 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 gene rally 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 visu al 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 Over hea r ing F ilm Dia logue (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 (Sta r Tr ek, Sta r ship Tr ooper s,
Ava ta r to name just a few), western -like language (Sta r Tr ek, F ir efly, Outla nd ) or
the dry language of film noir (probably the most famous example being Bla de
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 expla ining 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 corr ectly,
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 Sta r Tr ek vocabulary
corpus comprises such categories as:

- planets, asteroids, stars and other astronomical objects;

- minerals, plants, animals;
- alien races, individuals, languages, social, political a nd 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 the m 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
Other neologisms can be divided into two main categories: those that refer to the
new ontological elements actu ally 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 foll ow 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 Sta r
Tr ek 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 partic ular 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 Sta r Tr ekneologisms 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. Pre sent 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 en ding -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) a re 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 Sta r Tr ek, 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 reacti on 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 translators
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 Sta r Tr ek became
dalekosine czujniki [long-reaching sensors]). Not all terms may be easily
translated literally: transforming photonic torpedo into siluro fotonico, t orpeda
fotonowa or Photoniktorpedo does not pose a problem, but, for example, a
holodeck,[11] a fundamental element of the Sta r Tr ek 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 spectators
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 1 997: 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 sc ientists, 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 oug ht to,
in fact, sound differ ent 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 Burges s's/Kubrick's Clockwor k Or a nge). 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 exclus ively to neologisms and
technobabble, while the effect of verisimilitude is usually entrusted less to
thea ddition of new patterns, than to the elimina tion 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 s cience
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 connotat ions, 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 prese nt
day. For example, a simple exchange, 'Are you all right, Captain?' 'Never better',
was transformed into 'W porzdku?' '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 admirals statement, I assume yo u
are loitering here to learn what efficiency rating I plan to give your cadets, with an
idiomatic and extremely colloquial expression, Chce pan zapuci urawia do ocen
kadetw?[14] (Star Trek: Wr a th of Kha n), 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 s hows.
In an episode of Sta r Tr ek the Or igina l Ser ies (TOS), Spock, the pointy-eared
Vulcan science officer of the starship Enterprise, muses over a woman he has just
Here on Stratos everything is incomparably beautiful and
pleasant. The High Advisors 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 particula rly satisfactory from a stylistic point of view,
became even more inadequate in the first French translation:

Ici, sur Stratos, tout nest que luxe, calme and volupt, comme la
si bien dit un pote terrien. La fille du Grand Officier ne dpare
en rien cette cite idyllique. Comme le disait Plassius son pre,
cest le plus beau des chefs douvres. Une chose mtonne. Elle
semble tre confine dans un univers calfeutr et ethr. [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
pre and poetic adjectives such as calfeutr and ethr.
The examples quoted abov e are quite distant from each other in time: the French
translation of TOS was made in the 1970s, while Polish translations of Sta r Tr ek
Enter pr ise and the feature film Sta r Tr ek: Wr a th of Kha n 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 s ufficiently 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 issu e 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 Br a ve
New Wor ld, Equilibr ium, Loga n' s Run and Ma tr ix, 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 Equilibr ium the members of the ruling class are reunited in the pseudo -religious
order of Grammaton Clerics; in The Ha ndma id' s Ta le the women who are able to
conceive children are trained and forced to serve as sexual slaves handmaids
for the leaders; in Br a ve New Wor ld, 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, a s 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 ve ry
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 corvett a 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 th e 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 TNGs 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 hie rarchical
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 sci ence 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 degradat ion 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 telepa thy, 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 deci sions 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. Abramss 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
whats 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 un criminale. () La sola e unica ragione per qui
ancora vivo e perch io permetto che sia cos. 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 tes un criminal.
(..) Si vous tes encore en vie, cest 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 Sta r Wa r s 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, lordinateur [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
todays world through a discourse of fantasy and futurism, the metaphoric al
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 Sta r Tr ek series, Enter pr ise, 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 open ing 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 elem ents appear in the original dialogue that are culturally
marked not intentionally, a phenomenon that could be defined as an American way
of thinking. In Sta r Tr ek Enter pr ise, 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 Sta r Tr ek Voya ger 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. Th e 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 films visual component by the viewer. Given
that the fictional world shown in science fiction often includes elements that have
no referents in the empirical reali ty known to the audience, the dialogues
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 translators 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 th e 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 cycl es (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 cinematograp hic 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 Sta r Tr ek, Doctor Who and Sta r Wa r s 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 deni grate
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 Sta r Wa r s in the late 1970s and the recent dynamic revival of the gen re 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 t entative 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 g eneral 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 cont ribution 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 o f 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 Sta r Tr ek films were very closely tied to the TV series,
Abramss productions have been clearly proposed as mainstre am 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 r epla ces the real world with a fantasy one.
[9] An invaluable on-line resource for the exploration of the Sta r Tr ek universe and
its lexicon is the Memor y Alpha (
(accessed 15 September, 2014), the most definitive encyclopedia and reference for
everything related to Sta r Tr ek (currently containing over thirty-five thousand
entries). Available in different languages, it also offers direct comparative material
for the translation of neologisms and term inology used in ST series and films.
[10] Given the exceptionally rich vocabulary of the Sta r Tr ek 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 Ba ttlesta r Ga la ctica and Sta r ga te, 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 butchers 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 s ole reason
why you are still alive is because I am allowing it. So shut your mouth!] In the
movies 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.