Ian Bogost on the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation “Darmok” and the limits of human communication, in The Atlantic [h/t: Jennifer Ouellette]:
On stardate 45047.2, Jean-Luc Picard leads the crew of the Enterprise in pursuit of a transmission beacon from the El-Adrel system, where a Tamarian vessel has been broadcasting a mathematical signal for weeks. The aliens, also known as the Children of Tama, are an apparently peaceable and technologically advanced race with which the Federation nevertheless has failed to forge diplomatic relations. The obstacle, as Commander Data puts it: “communication was not possible.”
Picard exudes optimism as his starship courses through subspace. “In my experience communication is a matter of patience, imagination,” he beams to his senior staff. “I would like to believe that these are qualities which we have in sufficient measure.” But after hailing the alien ship upon arrival, contact with Children of Tama proves more difficult than Picard imagined:
DATHON, the Tamarian captain: Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Umbaya. Umbaya of crossed roads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray.
(no response from Enterprise, looks at First Officer in frustration)
(slowly, deliberately) Rai and Jiri. At Lungha.
In the Star Trek universe, a “universal translator” automatically interprets between any alien language instantly and fluently. Unlike today’s machine translation methods, the universal translator requires no previous experience with another language in order to make sense of it. Such is the case with Tamarian, at least on the surface, as the Enterprise crew is able to comprehend the basic syntax and semantics of Tamarian utterances. “The Tamarian seems to be stating the proper names of individuals and locations,” offers Data, stating the obvious. But Picard quickly sums up the problem, “Yes, but what does it all mean?”
Picard’s reply to the Tamarians sounds especially staid to the viewer’s ears after having heard the aliens’ exotic prose: “Would you be prepared to consider the creation of a mutual non-aggression pact between our two peoples? Possibly leading to a trade agreement and cultural interchange. Does this sound like a reasonable course of action to you?” His questions cause the Tamarians as much befuddlement as their litany of names and places does the Federation crew.