Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

Several people asked me what it meant when I tweeted “Rudd and Turnbull on qanda. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”.

QandA is of course the ABC TV talk show on which both former PM Kevin Rudd and former Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Turnbull were guests on Monday 19 November 2012. Although on opposite sides of the political spectrum, it was interesting to see how two individuals holding some strongly opposing views could still have a civilised and rationale debate and even find some common ground.

My Tweet was triggered by a question from an audience member who asked the two popular adversaries why they didn’t join forces and set up their own political party.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra is an expression from the Tamarian language, in one of the few Star Trek episodes that I have seen. Although I’m not a fan, this episode titled “Darmok” captured my interest with its exploration of the relationship between language and meaning.

The Tamarian language does not use vocabulary, syntax and grammar to communicate meaning. Instead it uses historical references, literary allusions and metaphor. Thus, although the computers can translate the words that the Tamarians speak, they can’t translate the actual meaning. To understand what the Tamarians are saying, i.e. what they mean, you have to know that culture’s history, legends, mythology, folklore, allegories and possibly their holy stories.

During this episode, Captain Dathon, a Tamarian, and Captain Picard are stranded on the surface of an alien planetĀ El-Adrel where they are in danger of attack from a vicious creature. Although the translator devices can render the speaker’s words accurately, neither can understand what the other actually means because of the different ways in which the two languages work.

When Capt. Dathon offers Picard one of two daggers, uttering the words, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”, Picard thinks he is challenging him to a duel. In fact, Dathon is alluding to a myth or legend about two heroes, Darmok and Jalad, rivals or enemies, who find themselves in a perilous situation on an island called Tanagra, who have to cooperate in order to defeat a monster and survive. Thus, when Dathon utters the expression “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“, he is saying “Let’s cooperate”, or “Let’s join forces to fight the creature”.

The sequence of scenes where it gradually begins to dawn on Picard how the Tamarian language works and he begins to understand and tentatively communicate with Dathon, is a minor masterpiece of filmic storytelling and acting.

Dathon is fatally injured in the battle with the creature. As he is dying, Picard tells him in Tamarian-type language the parallel Earth legend of Gilgamesh, where former foes Gilgamesh and Enkidu combine forces to deafeat the monsterous Bull of Heaven at Uruk and, like Dathon, Enkidu sacrifices his life for the greater good.

Picard returns to his own ship, and using Tamarian metaphor, begins to recount to the crew of the alien ship what happened between him and Dathon. One of the Tamarian crew exclaims: “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!” an allusion meaning something like “He understands”; “At last he gets it!”

Thus: Rudd and Turnbull on QandA. Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk. Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.


This entry was posted in Ian's Posts. Bookmark the permalink.