The confusion is great

Nov 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

Those who are starved for leisure may be stricken with envy to learn that there are people in the world with spare time enough to translate classic literature into Klingon. No kidding, into Klingon, as in the Klingon language, which was invented in the ’80s by linguist Dr. Marc Okrand for use by the actors playing the fearsome, ridge-browed humanoids in the Star Trek movies. Since the publication, in 1985, of Okrand’s The Klingon Dictionary, and of numerous subsequent books on the subject (including one titled Power Klingon), the growly ersatz tongue has grown into a sort of geek Esperanto, boasting several thousand words and societies of enthusiasts around the planet (Earth, that is).

The phenomenon probably reached its highest-profile exposure on a recent episode of “Frasier,” in which the title character was tricked into giving his son a bar mitzvah blessing in Klingon, thinking that it was Hebrew.

No language, however, can be considered truly great without a great literature. Enter, to remedy this, the Klingon Language Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation (!) that “exists to facilitate the scholarly exploration of the Klingon Language and Culture.” Two years ago Pocket Books published the KLI’s version of Hamlet, and last year the Institute published its own version of the ancient Sumerian masterpiece Gilgamesh. Hard as it may be to believe, there was actual literary merit in both of these books — not in the Klingon text, of course, which is just like any other foreign language to a nonspeaker. But the appendices of the Klingon Hamlet (Khamlet) claim that Shakespeare was actually Klingon — taking off from a throwaway gag to that effect in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — and give riotously deadpan explanations of the “literally translated” idioms. For instance, “and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” becomes “and may ships of the Black Fleet escort you to rest.”

The result is some wonderful parody of classical literary scholarship, probably more trenchant for Shakespeare nuts than for “Star Trek” buffs. And in the case of the Gilgamesh translation, the facing-page English version is one of the better, more readable renderings of that strange Akkadian epic that I’ve ever come across.

The most recent of the KLI’s published classics is a Klingon translation — excuse me, a “Restored Klingon Text” — of Much Ado About Nothing (or “pagmo’ tIn mIS”; literally, The Confusion Is Great Because of Nothing). Happily, the joke is sustained. The footnotes here are filled with more convoluted in-jokes and ingenious spoofs of critical wankery that nonetheless also display considerable literary and linguistic acumen. (They’re also, disappointingly, marred by a few startling typos, like “week” for “weak.” Klingon indifference to English, perhaps?) Some of the “literal translations” are priceless by themselves, like Benedick’s “And her hair shall be of what color it please God” as “And on her forehead the number of ridges is … the number that the Black Fleet’s engineers prefer.”

There’s an even better running gag throughout the footnotes, though, which will be recognizable to anyone who has endured an article on the Shakespearean “authorship controversy”: a wounded tone toward the obstinacy of Terran commentators to acknowledge that the English versions of the plays are forgeries and that Shakespeare (or “Shex’pir”) was a Klingon.

In one splendidly self-deprecating moment, the annotator rhetorically sneers that “One would hardly be surprised if the Terrans’ next claim was that the Klingon language itself was made up by humans!”

The Klingon Language Institute’s Website at has all of these books available for order. Maybe someday they’ll also offer a critical volume by some Klingon equivalent of Harold Bloom titled Shex’pir: The Invention of the Klingon.

M.V. Moorhead is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. E-mail [email protected].