"Klingon Language Interpreter" Urban Legend (Media)
By Seth Finkelstein
Sun May 11th, 2003 at 03:12:23 PM EST

Every once in a while, in order to remind myself of the quality of information typically reported, I trace down the source of a particularly ridiculous story. The "Klingon Language Interpreter" myth, which is spawning now, provides an amusing case study of the process of pack journalism.

We begin with the original story source, credited to Steve Woodward of The Oregonian, entitled "If you need someone to Klingon. . ."(sic). The need for a "Klingon interpreter" is presented as an obviously humorous purchasing request. It's a procedural joke arising from the "Klingon language". That is, on a lark, purchasing officials in Multnomah County, Oregon, decided to make sure that Klingon-language interpreters could be paid by the county, just in case there ever was a need for one. So Klingon was granted official status as a language for the purpose of hiring an interpreter, on par with obscure foreign languages.

In the original article, it's very clear nobody every seriously expected to procure the services of a Klingon interpreter:

The county would pay a Klingon interpreter only in the unlikely case he or she was actually called into service.

"We said, 'What the heck, let's throw it in,' " Jelusich says. "It doesn't cost us any money."

And the humorous aspect was emphasized:

The county's purchasing administrator, Franna Hathaway, greeted the request with initial skepticism. "I questioned it myself when it first came in. "

But, she adds, "There are some cases where we've had mental health patients where this was all they would speak."

Jelusich says that in reality, no patient has yet tried to communicate in Klingon. But the possibility that a patient could believe himself or herself to be a Klingon doesn't seem so far-fetched.

"I've got people who think they're Napoleon," he says.

And "Elvish" was suggested as the next language to be added.

So far, very funny. Very much along the lines of Klingon Google.

Then the article entered the media echo-chamber of stories-too-good-to-check (or even sanity-check). A joke about Klingon-speaking mental patients was transmuted into a story implying nonsensical bureaucratic requirements, the sort of rabble-rousing fiction one would expect to hear from ranting right-wing talk-radio.

An unbylined AP story carefully excised all context which would convey the just-joking aspect. Compare the AP version to the Oregonian version.

The AP headline, "Oregon County Seeks Klingon Interpreter" makes it sound as if a staff position is being offered. Then this impression is reinforced by using the quote "We have to provide information in all the languages our clients speak," as if it were an earnest indication of a legal requirement, not a deadpan joke. The second quote concerning "this was all they would speak", is similarly used as if it were serious. All material indicating only-kidding-folks has been deleted in the AP rewrite: "County officials said that obligates them to respond with a Klingon-English interpreter, ..."

And from there, we're off, echoing away. From Newsday or CNN to other sites, and then to uncounted blogs.

A new Urban Legend is born.

The most reliable information is on:
theonion.com 58%
dailyhowler.com 0%
popdex.com 1%
snopes.com 18%
kuro5hin.org 20%

Votes: 134
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
quality of information
original story source
The Oregonian
"Klingon language"
Klingon Google
AP version
Oregonian version
other sites
Urban Legend

"Klingon Language Interpreter" Urban Legend | 114 comments (100 topical, 14 editorial, 0 hidden)

[Only a few comments are reproduced below]

Praise from original, Oregonian, reporter (5.00 / 3) (#112)
by Seth Finkelstein on Thu May 15th, 2003 at 08:23:01 PM EST
(sethf[at-sign]sethf.com) http://sethf.com

[Posted with permission. Thanks!]


I just wanted to thank you for bothering to read the original Klingon interpreter story. I was appalled when I saw the AP version that went out over the wires. You were right on in your remarks. Thanks again.

Steve Woodward
The Oregonian
E-mail: stevewoodward[at-sign]news.oregonian.com

-- Seth Finkelstein

Urban Legends site entry (none / 0) (#101)
by Seth Finkelstein on Wed May 14th, 2003 at 01:20:49 PM EST
(sethf[at-sign]sethf.com) http://sethf.com

Klingon Interpreter
Claim: An Oregon county health services department hired a Klingon interpreter to assist psychiatric patients who would speak no other language.

Status: False.

-- Seth Finkelstein
Press Release: Klingon Removed From List (5.00 / 2) (#99)
by Seth Finkelstein on Wed May 14th, 2003 at 09:30:25 AM EST
(sethf[at-sign]sethf.com) http://sethf.com

[This is the full text of the Multnomah County press release. It doesn't appear to be available anywhere else on the net, and only snippets have been reported in the press. The following was mailed to me directly. I've also archived it at


May 12, 2003

Contact: Becca Uherbelau, Multnomah County Chair's Office 503-988-5273

Klingon Interpreter Services Removed From List

Recent media attention on Multnomah County RFPQ (Request for Programmatic Qualifications) RO37745 for translator and interpreter services requires clarification.

There is no cost to the county and no contractors are selected or paid through this RFPQ. "Not a penny of public money has been or will be spent on Klingon translation. I have issued an addendum to the RFPQ that officially removes it from the list of languages for county translation services effective immediately," states Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn.

"Certainly, the idea that Klingon is on a list of languages that our safety net services might have to translate sounds absurd and about as far out as you can get. It was a mistake and a result of an overzealous attempt to ensure that our safety net systems can respond to all customers and clients," states Diane Linn, Multnomah County Chair.

The county deals with a wide range of clients with severe mental health issues including manic depression, schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and delusions. It is our legal responsibility to respond with all resources and means necessary to communicate with clients.

The intent of the RFPQ is to standardize rates and the rules of service delivery for language services across the county. Additionally, the target of the RFPQ process is to develop a more comprehensive, cost effective approach to providing required and valuable translation services to clients in need. The end result is a list of qualified providers available to all county agencies, including languages spoken by a small number of potential clients.

Over 50 languages are included in the RFPQ. The county's responsibility is to provide the best possible care to the people who seek our help, particularly in the midst of a mental health or health crisis, whatever the language they speak.

"While this may sound like a quirky, peripheral issue, I would like people to take a moment to think about the kinds of things we are confronted with when we must help those who are mentally ill. The problems faced by those with mental illness are no joke, especially when they pose a threat to themselves or others. And what I hope people understand is that thanks to state budget cuts, we have little ability to help the severely mentally ill in any language. That is why we are working so hard to pass Measure 26-48," added Linn.

# # #

Public Affairs Office
501 SE Hawthorne Blvd., #600
Portland, Oregon 97214
503-988-6800 phone
503-988-6801 fax

News Release

-- Seth Finkelstein