Nothing spreads holiday cheer quite like the unearthly wolf grunts and throaty insistent howls of the Klingon species. In advance of WSC Avant Bard’s one-night-only staged reading of A Klingon Christmas Carol on December 15, DC Theatre Scene spoke with the man who created the Klingon language—who also happens to lead the theatre’s Board, and will perform the role of Scrooge.
Jennifer Clements: I hate to lead with the obvious question, but you invented the Klingon language. Can you tell me more about that?
Marc Okrand: “Invented” isn’t exactly the word. The first time the language was used was in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s the first dialogue in the movie—there’s a Klingon captain barking out commands to his crew. Those half dozen lines were the start of the language, and that was before I was involved.
For the third Star Trek film, they hired me to make up the Klingon dialogue. My task was to make up a language and make it sound real, and guttural, and as tough as befits a warrior language. The lines of Klingon dialogue in the first movie weren’t documented anywhere. So I went back to the first movie and wrote down phonetically what I was hearing, and wrote down what the subtitles were, but there was no way of knowing what part of each utterance meant what. I took the sounds and syllables from those half-dozen lines and the language’s phonology emerged from there.
It was supposed to sound weird and alien, so I put in some sounds that aren’t in English. At the same time, it had to be pronounceable. And they had to be able memorize them for long enough to say on camera. And then I had to make a grammatical structure, because in order to sound real it had to be real.
But at the end of the day, it’s not a human language, so it doesn’t have to follow human language rules.
JC: There’s been a fairly recent call for Klingon translations of existing plays and literature. What’s interesting to me is that there are a number of fictional languages – Elvish, for example – and you don’t see that happening with those. What is it about Klingon, do you think, that makes this language so in-demand?
MO: The Klingon-speaking community is not the only group of people who care about a fictional language. As you say, there’s Tolkien’s Elvish. But ever since Klingon happened, it seems like any science fiction or fantasy movie with folks from somewhere else has to also give them their own language. There’s Na’vi from Avatar, which James Cameron said would “out-Klingon Klingon,” whatever that means, and Dothraki from Game of Thrones. But Klingon got the jump on them chronologically.
But the real reason for such a demand… If I can use the word “because” in the manner that was awarded the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, the reason is, “Because Star Trek.” The success of the shows, and the movies, created the demand. Two kinds of people began to approach the language – the people who loved Star Trek, and the people who loved languages. And an interesting thing happened: the language people became Star Trek people, and the Star Trek people became language people.
I think the fact that the language is associated with the Klingon species also has a lot to do with its success. Klingons are boisterous and mean and tough and horrible but also noble in their way. In The Next Generation they fleshed out their culture and introduced honor as an important component. They’re so, so, so serious that they become funny. It’s fun to behave as a Klingon. All of these things that you’re not allowed to do, you can do because you’re Klingon. And I think that, as a culture, helped it to catch on.
JC: What does it involve for someone to take a play like A Christmas Carol and translate it into Klingon? Do you think the process differs from translating work into a real-world language?
MO: The people who’ve done the translating have studied the grammar after the Klingon dictionary came out. They took it very seriously. I didn’t know they would study it so microscopically. They’ve decided—by “they” I mean the Klingon-speaking community, the Klingon Language Institute—that they’re not going to make up new words or new elements of grammar. They’re constrained by those rules. The Sesame Street theme song was one of the first songs to be translated into Klingon. And Hamlet was the first play that was translated based on that dictionary and grammar.
JC: I think I saw a bilingual, Klingon/English copy of Hamlet in a bookstore once.
MO: Yeah, you can order it on Amazon.
So, like any translator, the people working on Hamlet had to figure out what they want to do with the story. Klingon isn’t spoken in Denmark. How do you grapple with that? There’s a scene with the traveling players, in Hamlet, but there was no Klingon word for “actor.” So instead they used the word for someone who takes action. And I didn’t have a word for “nunnery,” so Hamlet had to tell Ophelia to go someplace else.
There was a big discussion around the gravedigger scene, and how to handle it in the translation. You have the two gravediggers talking, and they’re speaking in a different dialect of English from the other characters in the play—either because they’re from a different part of Denmark or a different social class. Which posed the first challenge. And then the second challenge, from a translation standpoint, came from the dialogue itself, which is full of puns. Puns don’t translate. So they had to make a choice. In that situation, you have to say, do we preserve the dialogue and say exactly, word-for-word, what they’re saying? Or change the dialogue, and introduce a lot of puns in the new language? And they chose to do the latter, which I think was the right choice. They put it in a strange dialect of Klingon, and it’s one Klingon pun after another.
There’s nothing in the Klingon Hamlet that isn’t in the Klingon dictionary.
JC: Speaking of the word “actor,” what seems to be the hardest thing for performers who have dialogue in Klingon?
MO: Remembering the lines. Well, they were mostly pretty short. And getting the pronunciation right.
I would work with the actors—helping them practice the lines, and correcting them between shots. But I learned early on, you know, time is money, and if everything else was working right with the shot, I stopped saying anything if the Klingon wasn’t exactly perfect. If it sounded like it could be Klingon, I would just make a note of it and go back later and adapt the vocabulary accordingly.
But with the stage productions, the actors have to actually memorize the language. We don’t, because our Klingon Christmas Carol is a staged reading. When Commedia Beauregard, who originated the show, did it in St. Paul and Chicago, it was a full production – with costumes and wigs and bumps on their foreheads. So they started their rehearsal process earlier, with language lessons. Some of the actors would learn how to pronounce it correctly. Some would want to learn how the grammar worked. They’ve been very good, very funny productions.
Creating Klingon, Marc Okrand with Star Trek clips
JC: With most shows that include dialogue in another language, there’s someone on hand to serve as a speech or dialect coach. How does that happen with a fictional language?
MO: The playwright, Christopher Kidder-Mostrom, who will be here for our show, is a pretty good Klingon speaker. He worked with the actors on the St. Paul and Chicago productions. And you can actually find Klingon dialogue coaches around.
When we got the idea here to do A Klingon Christmas Carol, I thought I would be a dialogue coach. It turns out, I’m actually playing Scrooge… which I didn’t know until recently!
And while I know a lot about the language and how it works, that can be a very different thing from speaking it. I didn’t have anything to do with the writing or translating of this play. So I’ve been reading the script and saying things out loud.
JC: And we should mention that you’re WSC Avant Bard’s Board President. How did you first get involved with them?
MO: By going to the theatre! I saw a couple of shows prior to their Clark Street location, and liked the company, and got to know some of the people involved, including Christopher Henley – who hadn’t yet become artistic director. After some time had passed, he asked if I wanted to be on the Board. I became president early on, and I’ve been sticking around ever since.
JC: What are some of the most memorable productions that you’ve seen?
MO: The ones that stand out—oh, there are so many we’ve done. The production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis we did was incredible. Caligula. The naked Scottish Play. We did a production of Pericles which was interesting, because we set it up so the audience was in the middle and the performers were around them. As You Like It. Love’s Labour’s Lost, Genet’s The Maids. And the all-female Taming of the Shrew.
JC: I read that WSC Avant Bard held its first evening of theatre in Klingon in 2010 with the original Mr. Sulu, George Takei.
MO: The first year we did Klingon Shakespeare, yes, George Takei came. He didn’t talk Klingon. He did something from Julius Caesar, in English. We did a scene from Hamlet and a scene from Much Ado About Nothing, which is the other one that was fully translated into Klingon. Stephen Fry was at the next one, in the following year, because we were also doing a taping for the BBC.
JC: Like many Klingon productions in the company’s past, this performance of A Klingon Christmas Carol is a fundraiser for WSC Avant Bard. What excites you about what WSC Avant Bard is doing now, or planning to do in the future?
MO: Well, we haven’t announced our next season yet, but the remainder of this season is pretty interesting. We have Othello, which is a co-production with Lean & Hungry Theater. We’re performing it first at Theatre on the Run, and then for the radio on WAMU. And then there’s the final show of the season, The Madwoman of Chaillot, which Christopher Henley is directing.
I’m sure next season will also be exciting—we just don’t know what it is yet.
JC: What would you like people to know about A Klingon Christmas Carol?
MO: Everyone should come and see it. It’s only performing for one evening. I know the actors are having a good time with it, and the audience will as well! There are English supertitles, for those of you who aren’t fluent in Klingon. It is a fundraiser… and we need funds, because that’s how theatre works.
The staged reading of A Klingon Christmas Carol will be presented Monday, December 15th, beginning at 8pm at Theater J, 1529 Sixteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets