5 resources to help you translate, read, and learn to speak Klingon (seriously)
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Learn to speak Klingon with this stud on the beach (screenshot, Opa Klingon Style by Comediva via YouTube)

Learn to speak Klingon. This is real and the number of places to learn is growing

There is a concerted, global effort to preserve and enhance the language of Klingon. Created for fictional purposes on Star Trek, the language has evolved to have a consistent vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and so forth with a plethora of resources to help interpret Klingon texts and teach you to create your own. Often belittled but honestly underappreciated Star Trek conventions are depicted humorously as meetups for unsociable nerds to greet each other endlessly in an artificial dialect, non-stop, while cosplaying, over a long weekend.

Well, to be honest that depiction is probably true, but nevertheless the rigor and concentration some Klingon enthusiasts have is striking. That kind of eagerness would go a long way helping preserve languages in danger of extinction (hint hint, create a cult sci-fi show that uses minority languages and create a community of language loyalists).

Fostering new communities of language speakers from virtual scratch is not unprecedented. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a 19th century Zionist who committed to speaking with family and friends only in Hebrew is credited in Israel today with turning the language back into a spoken dialect for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.

It’s doubtful that tens of thousands of trekkies will embark to create their own state with Klingon as the official language, but in the meantime mavens have teamed with linguists, developers, and machine translation experts to create a suite of tools for anyone aiming to develop skills in the language.

1. Duolingo

It’s not ready yet, but the team at Pittsburgh mega startup Duolingo is about a quarter of the way through a beginner’s course for Klingon learners. It would be one of only 27 languages offered by the app and join co-artificial language Esperanto.

Rival app Memrise, which allows users to create their own courses and thus offers many more classes than Duolingo, has several separate mini courses on things like Klingon vocabulary, the Klingon alphabet, affixes, basic grammar, shapes, days of the week, adverbs, numbers, and even a review course for the Klingon Language Certification Program (KLCP1).

2. Microsoft Translator

Forget Google Translate for a moment. Microsoft has beaten them to the punch on Klingon, adding the vile but of course beautiful-in-its-own-way tongue in May 2013.

Microsoft is not the first to work on such a project. As early as 1999, David Yarowsky lead a team building some of the first machine translation (MT) programs for languages like Nepali, Uzbek, and Bengali. The New York Times had the chance to ask him about the utility (or futility) of spending so many hours on a fictional dialect.

”If we can learn how to translate even Klingon into English, then most human languages are easy by comparison,” he told the Times then. ”All our techniques require is having texts in two languages. For example, the Klingon Language Institute translated ‘Hamlet’ and the Bible into Klingon, and our programs can automatically learn a basic Klingon-English MT system from that.”

To help pull off this feat of machine translation engineering, Microsoft needed a little help, which they got from . . .

3. KLI: The Klingon Language Institute

We shit you not. They even have their own online course for beginners (taghwl’ in Klingon, and no I don’t know how to pronounce it). The Klingon Language Institute was founded by Lawrence M. Schoen, Ph.D. in 1992. They hold annual retreats, more akin to academic conferences, every summer.

The endeavor sounds ridiculous, which gives organizers and participants extra motivation to assure people that they are extremely serious about the project.

This is definitely something that can be fun for enthusiasts, but the depth with which the community approaches the subject actually helps develop the language further. This is a truly impressive intellectual exercise and highlights how creative humans can be.

4. Klingon Bible Translation Project

Anything called the “Klingon Bible Translation Project” might seem like a novelty of a novelty on the one hand, but also something far too advanced or intimidating for a newcomer no matter how enthusiastic (if I don’t speak it, why would I try studying Biblical Klingon?).

The aforementioned Klingon Bible Translation Project led by Kevin Wilson is still a work in progress, but many experts have put in effort. Joel Anderson has worked on one. When it comes to Bible translations, you’ll find the enthusiasm to create new ones is never lacking. As the Bible has reached more and more people and the need to update for changes in vernacular is constant, translators have endeavored to get more and more precise with each work.

The interesting thing about holy texts is that in deeply religious societies they tend to be learned in a rote manner. Even though there are advanced Hebrew courses for American Jews and strong Arabic programs for Indonesian Muslims, a large part of such communities’ linguistic competence with their holy languages is matching their textbook language learning to Biblical and Quranic verses they learn to recite as children.

The same principle would work here. The advantage of the Bible is that there are so many translations available in virtually every language spoken today. This creates numerous frames of reference for enthusiastic Klingon learners. Working through translations often forces students to learn things about a target language, as would a concerted effort to find the best vocabulary and phrase choices for translating a nuanced text like the Bible.

If you’re an Orthodox Jew who is follows the traditional “שני מקרא, אחד תרגום” format (read the Hebrew version of the weekly Torah selection twice and its Aramaic translation once), then you could incorporate some Klingon Bible into your weekly routine.

Or not. I’m just a tech writer and language enthusiast, not a Rabbi (I didn’t finish the program).

There is an advantage in going to the original source for more accurate interpretation, so if you do have some Hebrew under your belt, you might be able to create a legacy for yourself as one of the people who created the first direct Klingon Bible from Hebrew.

5. English to Klingon and Klingon to English dictionaries

No adventure into a new culture would be complete without a proper dictionary. A few exist, with varying levels of depth and extensivity. https://klingonska.org/dict/ and https://glosbe.com/tlh/en/ are just a couple examples.

Glosbe brags it has its own translation memory, a technical term used by language and translation programmers to refer to a databank of previous translations machine learning programs use as reference to make later translations more accurate (the more data, the more precise).

“Our Translation Memory come mostly from parallel corpuses that were made by humans. Such translated sentences are very useful addition to dictionaries.” That is a deep advantage for any dictionary and a relevant approach for all future digital two-language dictionaries, not just for man-made languages like Klingon.

That should be enough to get you started. Keep your eyes peeled for Duolingo’s beta testing to start, get acquainted with Microsoft Translator, and at the very least figure out how to pronounce the awkward spelling. Now enjoy Klingon Style.

Opa Klingon Style lyrics

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  • Bill Chapman

    That was a very entertaining poiece, but I hope some readers will use their time to learn and use Esperanto – language used by a widespread human community. Esperanto works! I’ve used it in about twenty countries over recent years. I recommend it to any traveller, as a way of making friendly local contacts – and not with geeks alone.

  • klingonska

    I would like to advise very strongly against using Bing Translator (or any machine translator) as a tool for learning Klingon.

    Now, don’t get me wrong: Bing Translator is the most advanced English-Klingon-English machine translator available, and I’m glad it exists, because it is quite interesting to play around with and talk about. However, asking it to provide accurate Klingon translations is like asking somebody to solve a million-piece puzzle using only a thousand pieces, some of which aren’t even from the right box.

    In general, machine translators should always be approached with great skepticism, but they can sometimes be handy for taking some quick and dirty shortcuts in looking up expressions and conjugations. For example, while studying Japanese, I’ll sometimes throw simple sentences into a machine translator, and then do an online search for the result to see if I can find verification for it.

    However, that only works because there are actually some pretty good machine translators for English-Japanese-English; I find that both Bing Translator and Google Translate give me reliable results often enough to be useful sometimes for translating simple sentences.
    For more similar languages such as English and Swedish, I find they both give quite reliable results even for more complex sentences. I’ve also found quite good results when going between English and French, presumably because there is such a large corpus of bilingual texts for the translation software to analyze and find patterns in. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I think it’s probably safe to say that it has millions of translated documents to draw upon.

    However, when it comes to Klingon, you have two big problems:

    1) Klingon grammar is very different from English.

    2) The corpus of bilingual English-Klingon texts is very small, amounting only to about a thousand or so pages.

    Problem 1) isn’t really insurmountable (Klingon is still more similar to English than either of them are to Japanese), but in combination with problem 2), it makes machine translation so unreliable as to be more of a hindrance than an aid; there simply isn’t enough information for the software to create a good model for translation between the two languages, so it often ends up giving you gibberish.

    For example, if you feed “I didn’t like the pie you baked.” into Bing Translator, you get {chab meQmo’ SoH vIchel vIparHa’.}, which really means “Because of the burnt pie, you. I add it. I like it.”
    (A proper translation would have been, for example, {chab Davutta’bogh vIpar.}.)

    This issue is further compounded by the fact that a significant portion of the bilingual corpus consists of “restored” works of Shakespeare “in the original Klingon”, which aren’t actually literal translations but rather reinterpretations written to fit a narrative that Shakespeare was actually a Klingon.

    This leads to such issues as the fact that Bing Translator used to translate “Denmark” as {Qo’noS}, due to the fact that in The Klingon Hamlet, Hamlet is the son of the emperor of Qo’noS.

    Another interesting example is that Bing Translator translates “Did you see where he went?” as {HoSDo’Hey Dalegh’a’?}, literally meaning “Do you see the apparent energy beings?” This is no doubt another case of Hamlet rearing its head, because in that text, Hamlet and his friends refer to “the apparition” as {HoSDo’Hey} (“apparent energy beings”) before they identify it as the restless spirit of the murdered emperor.

    (For the record, a proper translation might have been, for example, {Daq ghoSpu’bogh Dangu’laH’a’?} (“Can you identify the location to which he/she has gone?”))

    This particular brand of machine translated gibberish has become known as “Bingon” (or {bIngan Hol}) in the Klingon-speaking community, and whenever it makes its way into a news article or the like, we make almost like a game out of trying to figure out what the source of confusion is *this time*.

    As a little in-joke, I like to use {ghIlDeSten!} to thank people. This simply means “Guildenstern”, which is the name of one of Hamlet’s friends, but Bing Translator thinks it means “Thanks”, likely owing to the fact that Hamlet contains the line “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.”

    There are also some typos and other errors that made their way into the corpus, which I’m guessing is actually quite common for machine translators, but when you have millions of documents to go by the poor samples will become drowned out by the sheer quantity of better ones.

    FRENCH: Did some overworked UN translator accidentally type “Il sont” instead of “Ils ont” back in 1963? Not to worry; here are 99,999 examples by 500 other translators collected over the course of the past century; the software can work out the rest.

    KLINGON: Did somebody accidentally write {QonoSnganpu’} (“journal-dwellers”) instead of {Qo’noSnganpu’} (“Kronosians”) in Hamlet? And was it translated as “Danes”? Well, that word only appears a couple of times, so … flip a coin, I guess.

    • klingonska

      I also had a quick peek at glosbe’s Klingon dictionary, and it’s quite awful. Just looking at the first page of the scroll-down menu, fewer than half of the glosses are what I’d consider correct are correct.

      Correct (with accurate translations): ‘eng (“cloud”), be’Hom (“girl”), bIQ (“water”), bo (“feather”)

      Correct (but with flawed translations): baH (“fire (a torpedo)”), bIH (“them/they (not capable of communicating through language”)

      Non-canonical (but well-formed) neologisms: ‘eSperanto (“Esperanto”), ‘eSperanto Hol (“Esperanto”), ‘ubIH Hol (“Ubykh”) [listed twice; once with a curly apostrophe and once with a straight one]

      On-screen gibberish: bIHnuch

      Words that don’t even use the tlhIngan Hol orthography: acnos, ad, ados, angel, baktag

      So, I’d say that’s about 6 good samples, 3 dubious but acceptable ones, and 6 samples that should be destroyed with fire. Not a great batting average.

      Klingonska Akademien’s dictionary is very good, though; compiled by a good friend of mine 🙂
      Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated in the past few years. We’ve been wanting to update it, but unfortunately it’s difficult finding the time.