As the Humans Say
Dialogue for Aliens
Saturday, July 21, 2018 5:28 pm
In The Corbomite Maneuver, an episode from the original Star Trek, an alien named Balok has decided to destroy the Enterprise. Balok then grants the crew some time to make peace with their Deity or deities. And how much time does Balok give the crew? "Ten Earth time periods known as minutes."
Unless you're a steady fan of SF, you might not appreciate how amusing that is. It is the epitome of an SF meme, namely the alien who must use human measurements just to make it clear how long or far or big something is. And since the writer must concede that an alien would not normally use "minutes," he must therefore qualify "minutes" with "your" or "human" or "Earth."
But it sounds so silly. It's even a tad pedantic.
These pedantic qualifications are constant in Babylon 5; and it's not just for measurements such as "days" or "megatons." These past weeks I've been bingeing the series and you can all but make a drinking game out of "as the humans say." Straczynski, the prime mover and writer of the series, too often uses "as the humans say" to qualify a colloquialism or allusion or metaphor that, yes, might seem odd from the mouth of an alien. But surely the alien knows that his listener, a human, knows what humans say, and would qualify nothing. I have conversed with quite a few Japanese and Indians in the context of an English-speaking company, and they have never said "as the Americans say."
It's especially grating when Straczynski has two aliens of the same species conversing. He wants an alien to use some obvious and appropriate phrase like "kill two birds with one stone," and of course he feels a pedantic twinge and has to have that alien prepend "as the humans say." Honestly, if the phrase seems that out of place in the mouth of your alien, don't use it. Besides, why would two aliens, speaking to each other, use human turns of phrase at all? For one thing, they'd be speaking to each other in their own language, not English (the English is just a concession to the reader or viewer); and for another, they'd surely have their own phrases.
Never be like Straczynski and deploy "as the humans say." Either narratively establish that the aliens are linguistically assimilated and let them speak naturally, or bite the bullet and use a measurement or metaphor without qualification. Only in first-contact situations need you fuss with this issue at all, and in such situations do try to avoid the overblown balokisms.
P.S. Although the writing and the "humor" in Babylon 5 can be cringe-worthy, the characters and their arcs are really good. The characters actually develop. Their relationships and struggles are interesting and relevant. They're not just cogs in the plot or literary mixtures of personality traits. They support the space opera nicely — and that opera, Shadow War and all, is also really good. Hence my bingeing.