Interview: The Klingon teacher behind Star Trek: Discovery’s subtitles
James R | On 27, Sep 2017
This week saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery on Netflix UK – and, while the actual show blew us away (read our review here), there was another surprise that we weren’t expecting: the series is streaming worldwide with Klingon subtitles.
First invented by Scotty, aka. James Doohan, on Star Trek: The Motion Picture in collaboration with producer Jon Povill, Klingon has grown into a fully-fledged language over the years since the show’s premiere, with Marc Okrand penning The Klingon Dictionary in 1985. Today, Lieven L. Litaer is continuing that linguistic tradition by meticulously translating all 15 episodes for Netflix. A Klingon expert who teaches the language, he’s even become part of the on-screen legacy itself, by providing the voice of the Klingon in a promotional video for the new series a few weeks ago:
— Star Trek: Discovery (@StarTrekNetflix) August 25, 2017
We catch up with Litaer to find out what it’s like to translate a whole Netflix show without telling anyone. While he can’t reveal when exactly Netflix got in touch with him to do the translation, he’s more than happy to trade many other words in English about Star Trek, its challenges and the language he knows inside and out.
Klingon culture and language is such a key part of the show and its legacy. How does it feel to be involved in that, even in a tongue-in-cheek way?
Most people would just regard this as a translation job, but being a huge Star Trek fan, it is a great honor to be part of the show. I would never have thought that I would ever be so close to the show.
Klingon’s not easy to speak, let alone learn. How long did it take to translate?
It’s difficult to say how long a translation takes, because translating Klingon is much different than translating other languages. First of all, with only 3,000 words, you cannot always translate everything, and next, there are some concepts that Klingons just do not have, like saying “Hello” or “Welcome aboard”. Many phrases are really easy, like “activate the transporter beam” or “Yes, Captain”, but there were situations which made my brain boil for several days until I found a useful workaround! So viewers shouldn’t be surprised if a translation is not literal.
What was your favourite line to translate? Or the hardest line to translate?
Finding a way to say “we come in peace” was not so easy as one would think, but the result seemed quite simple: “roj wIQej”. “We cherish peace.” The hardest parts to translate are those what trekkies would call “technobabble”, i.e. re-routing power from this system to that system and so on. This sometimes needs some creativity finding suitable Klingon components.
When did you first learn Klingon?
I started learning Klingon at the age of 15 in 1995 and started to get quite fluent in 1997, after I had joined the KLI.
And when did you decide to become a teacher?
It was around 2002, when I had organized my first large Klingon language meeting. I noticed how people were struggling to learn Klingon by themselves, so I wanted to help everyone get an easier first step into the language. Since then, I have been organising annual meetings each year, held lectures on universities and conventions and started my own YouTube channel in 2011.
What kind of demand is there for Klingon lessons? Has that increased since the recent feature film reboot or the announcement of Star Trek: Discovery?
Yes, it started with the reboot of the movies in 2009, people got aware of Star Trek again, there were also several new products published using Klingon language. It really increased after Star Trek Into Darkness, in which we had lots of Klingons and even a Klingon dialogue. We all hope that the interest for the Klingon will grow even more with the new series, because as we all know, the entire first season is going to be about the Klingons, so I’m sure we’ll get to see some more dialogue. And having the Klingon subtitles will show that it is a real language.
What do you think of the new series? In English, please.
I really like it. I am very happy to have a new Star Trek show again, and they have put a big effort into the details of it, and it really has the right feel of Star Trek. It sure is different from what we’ve seen in earlier versions of Star Trek, but times have changed, so has the TV-watching experience of the people. So we should definitely give it a chance and not judge it after only one or two episodes. I hope it will last some more seasons.
Star Trek: Discovery is available now on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.