- Heb.: קדש (Kadeish)
Mbr.: Na’chai gelomo-ke
Lennier coughed. “Ambassador, come. We will be late. I do not wish to keep Commander Ivanova waiting. This evening is very important to her.” He shifted from foot to foot, anxious.
Delenn grimaced, relinquishing the hairbrush. “After she spent so much time teaching me how to—brush—it would be rude for me to arrive unkempt.” She sighed. “You are right. Perhaps it is only my own vanity. And I know how hard you have prepared.” She smiled at Lennier and the small stack of books under his arm. “Lead the way.”
When they arrived, Lennier let out a relieved sigh: everyone was still milling around the table, chatting. Among the guests, he recognized many of the command staff. Dr. Franklin had brought a human woman with him, and Mr. Garibaldi was attempting to amuse Ms. Winters with an anecdote. Captain Sheridan was touching the ceremonial plate in the middle of the table—the seder plate, it was called. Commander Ivanova—Susan, Lennier reminded himself, she told him to call her Susan while she was off duty—asked Captain Sheridan a question, and he nodded and produced a small fruit from his pocket, which he placed on the plate. This gesture seemed to have special meaning to her; he saw her eyes become watery.
They were the only Minbari present, but as Lennier looked around the room he saw—to his deep chagrin—that they were not the only non-humans present.
“Ambassador Delenn,” G’Kar boomed, “Your hair is looking lovely tonight.” He overpronounced the word hair, either because he’d just learned it or because he wanted to be insulting. It was hard to tell with G’Kar.
“Yes,” Londo agreed, “though it pains me to agree with anything G’Kar says. But why do you not try out some of the Centauri hairstyles, huh? You would look magnificent, given enough wax.”
Delenn opened her mouth, no doubt to respond graciously, but Lennier was too nervous not to interrupt. “Ambassadors,” he said in a rush, “I’m sorry that I was not informed of your attendance in time. I have only translated—”
But then Susan called for everyone’s attention, and they had to sit.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, looking down the length of the table. She seemed a little stiff. “It’s been a long time since I sat down to a proper seder. And... it’s my first time hosting one.” She glanced away, looking for reassurance to the person at her right side—from Ms. Winters, Lennier saw. Interesting. Ms. Winters nodded and folded her hand over Susan’s. “Because I know this will be the first seder many of you have been to, I’ve asked Mr. Lennier to help me make copies of the haggadah for you.” Susan looked at him, and Lennier jumped to his feet and bowed.
“Commander Ivanova explained to me that at the seder, everyone reads along in a book which explains the order and meaning of the ceremony. Because it is important for everyone to understand, I have translated the most significant parts of the text into Minbari.” He blinked, embarrassed. “I regret that I was not able to translate it into Narn and Centauri as well. Please accept my apologies.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Vir called cheerfully from Londo’s left side. “We decided to come at the last minute. We can read many of the Earther languages anyway.”
“Vir,” Londo hissed, but Vir didn’t look even a little ashamed, just confused. Lennier would never understand their relationship.
G’Kar and Na’Toth simply smiled. “Your diligence is commendable, Mr. Lennier. We will manage,” G’Kar said airily.
Lennier bowed again, not knowing what to say, and handed round the little books he had made.
“Now,” Susan said, “does everyone have a glass?”
- Heb.: ורחץ (Urchatz)
En.: First washing
“If you take any longer, G’Kar, you will have used up the entire water allotment for the station!”
“I am trying to be thorough, Ambassador Mollari, out of respect for the Commander.”
Susan leaned over from her place in the queue. “That’s very kind of you, Ambassador, but with this number of guests, we actually might use up my entire water allotment, and I would like to shower again sometime this year.”
G’Kar pursed his lips and turned off the tap. “My apologies.” He rubbed his hands and hummed to himself as he walked back to the table, Londo glowering after him.
- Heb.: כרפס (Karpas)
“Lennier,” Delenn whispered, dipping a slice of some unidentifiable Earth vegetable into a dish of saltwater, “in your readings for this ritual, did you come across an explanation for the use of this—salt water?” She pronounced the words separately, slowly, in English.
Lennier smiled. “I did.”
“And will you tell me?”
Lennier considered, and then said, “I think you should ask the Commander.”
Delenn made that slow-motion shocked expression of hers. “I would not want the Commander to think I had not come prepared.”
Lennier didn’t know what to say, so simply gave a little bow, and accepted the dish of saltwater as it passed. Delenn looked frustrated, but she turned to Susan anyway.
“Commander,” she said, “may I ask—why do we dip this into salt water before eating it?”
Susan grinned. “The first time I asked my father that, he said, ‘So that you would ask that question, little soul.’”
Delenn turned back to Lennier, looking absolutely flummoxed, and to everyone’s surprise, Captain Sheridan burst out laughing. “Oh, Ambassador,” he said, “now you know what it’s like to have a conversation with you.”
- Heb.: יחץ (Yachatz)
“Well,” Susan said, “usually we’d have the children hide the afikoman...”
“Make Dr. Franklin do it,” Garibaldi said, “he’s basically a teenager.” Dr. Franklin looked displeased at this comment, but the woman sitting next to him stifled a laugh.
Susan wagged the wrapped matzoh in his direction. “That’s a... thoughtful suggestion, Mr. Garibaldi,” she said. “But in my house, the point was always that the kids got to, you know, put one over on the adults. It doesn’t seem like it should be one of the command staff.”
A shy hand slowly rose from the end of the table.
“I’ll do it,” Vir said.
Susan handed it over, and Vir beamed with happiness before scurrying away to complete his task.
- Heb.: מגיד (Maggid)
Mbr.: Ve klor nuzin naha’gon. Ra’chai
“Here—this page—” Lennier felt his face becoming blue with embarrassment as he reached over to turn the page for Delenn, anxious that she should play her part correctly. “In either language.”
“Ah! I see. Thank you, Lennier.” She turned back to the group. “I am—the wise child?”
“Seems appropriate,” Captain Sheridan said, a little too earnestly.
Delenn touched the page with her finger and followed the text as she read. “What are the laws, customs, and traditions which God has commanded you to do?”
As Susan began to read the traditional response, Lennier turned to Captain Sheridan and gestured for him to read the next question. Sheridan looked surprised, but he picked up his book and cleared his throat.
“Captain?” Susan said.
“What is all this to you?” Captain Sheridan said, and Lennier, who had spent a long time translating the names of the four sons, felt more satisfied than ashamed at the subtle insult he had given. All the same, his ears rang and he found it hard to pay attention to the conversation. He resolved to meditate on it later.
G’Kar took the next question, asking “What is this?” with such drama that Londo nearly threw his wine at him.
And then they came to the fourth question, which Lennier had labeled “Mbr.: hyst; En.: silent.” Susan looked at Ms. Winters and took her hand. Their thumbs each caressed the other’s fingers.
“Well, you’re always telling me you don’t know what’s okay to ask,” Susan said, and this meant nothing to Lennier, but Ms. Winters leaned over and kissed Susan for what seemed like a long time.
- Heb.: רחצה (Rachtzah)
En.: Second washing
Delenn inclined her head toward Lennier as they stood waiting to wash again. “This ritual,” she said. “It has a very beautiful rhythm, does it not? Four cups of wine, two purifications, four questions... It seems the humans retain a sense of beauty, despite all they have suffered.”
Lennier hesitated to correct her, but he felt Susan would think it was important. “Not... all humans. Jewish humans observe Pesach. And... Jewish non-humans, too.”
“There are others who have converted?”
Lennier nodded. “At least one Minbari has converted. Apparently she is already being consulted by human rabbis for her expertise regarding the Minbari homeworld. It seems that there were multiple opinions as to when both Shabbat and Pesach should begin on Minbar, since we have two suns, and therefore two sundowns.”
Delenn stretched out her hands to wash. “And whose opinions are these?”
“As I told you: one Minbari.”
- Heb.: מוציא, מצה (Motzi, Matzo)
Na’toth frowned at her haggadah as they all chewed. She looked thoughtful. “I thought this was a human food,” she said. “Lennier, you have a similar Minbari word for it written here. Is this also a food among your people? What a remarkable coincidence.”
“Oh,” Lennier said, embarrassed and delighted to be asked. He was especially proud of this translation. “No. But the sound of the word ‘matzo’ was similar to words in our own language that meant the same thing. ‘Mat,’ meaning ‘bread,’ and ‘z’ha,’ meaning ‘death.’”
The room fell utterly silent.
Susan, her cheeks flushed with two glasses of wine, said incredulously: “Bread of death?”
Lennier quailed. “I... seem to have given offense. I am so sorry.” He bowed, nearly hiding his face in his hands.
Susan looked speechless. To Lennier’s chagrin, Captain Sheridan stepped in. “Mr. Lennier, what exactly made you think that matzo meant ‘bread of death’?”
“Forgive me,” Lennier said, wishing he could hide alongside the afikoman. “I overheard Commander Ivanova talking to Dr. Franklin. She told him that it was sometimes called the bread of affliction, but it might as well be the bread of death, because...” He couldn’t bring himself to finish.
“Because what?” Captain Sheridan had a twinkle in his eye.
Lennier swallowed. “Because, she said, ‘after a week, you feel like you’re going to die if you have to eat any more of it.’”
There was a pause. Then Susan threw back her head and laughed uproariously, and soon the guests, feeling the tension broken, did the same.
Delenn squeezed Lennier’s hand under the table, and he looked up, startled. She was smiling indulgently. “It is all right, Lennier,” she said, and her face in that moment suddenly made all the humiliation worth it.
- Heb.: מרור (Maror)
“Ironically,” Lennier whispered across the corner of the table to Na’toth, “we actually do have this food on Minbar.”
- Heb.: כורך (Koreich)
Mbr.: Mat’z’ha yla-ke
“This is torture. We have been here for two and a half hours and we are eating, what, a leaf sandwich? Bah!”
“Londo, shhh! According to the book, the meal is coming next. Please, be patient.”
“Eh. All right, Vir, as the Earthers say, keep your plants on.”
- Heb.: שלחן עורך (Shulchan oreich)
En.: Festive meal
Mbr.: Klenn (Nuz etak widuz)
The room was quiet as they all ate, save for a soft hum of enjoyment. Susan, Mr. Garibaldi, and Dr. Franklin had apparently been cooking all day, and they were enjoying the fruits of their labor at last.
“They even made flarn,” Delenn said happily, and Lennier, finishing his second bowl, did not answer.
- Heb.: צפון (Tzafun)
“Vir, are you absolutely sure that this is where you put it?” Londo looked murderous. Even Lennier had to admit that his patience for religious rituals was being tried by the hunt for the afikoman, which Susan had assured him “took only a couple of minutes,” and which had now been going on for nearly half an hour.
Vir waved his hands around with nervous, exhausted energy. “Yes! Yes! I remember thinking, I should hide it by the door, because no one would go out, so no one would see it; but then—no, you’re right, that’s the first place I thought of hiding it, but then I didn’t hide it there. I had a glass of wine between then and now. Or was it two?”
“Vir,” Londo barked, and Vir trembled.
“Right, sorry. Okay. I remember thinking, what’s the best way to hide something? And then I thought of the old story of Asinus, you know, when he needed to hide his mistress from his wives? And he hid her by dressing her up like a different one of his wives whenever the others came to visit. I always loved that story.” He beamed, childlike, and Susan hid a smile with her hand.
Londo’s voice had gone from a growl to an even more frightening false cheerfulness. “Ah, yes,” he said. “And the lesson of that story is that because his love for his mistress was true, his wives could not tell her apart. Because it is always easiest to hide one thing amongst similar things.” He chuckled, and Vir nodded happily, chuckling too.
Lennier braced himself.
“Are you telling me,” Londo said, positively volcanic, “that you hid this bread amongst other, identical bread?”
Vir’s lips quivered like flarn. “I—that is—”
But before Londo could execute some terrible revenge on his hapless assistant, Ms. Winters left the group and came back with the afikoman in her hand, cool and collected. Susan raised an eyebrow.
“You didn’t—” she paused.
Ms. Winters looked shocked. “No, of course not. Once Vir explained his story, I went to find the rest of the matzah. When I looked in the box, only one of them was broken, so I figured—” she shrugged— “that had to be it.”
“You see? No telepathy required,” said Captain Sheridan, laughing.
Susan glowered. “I certainly hope not. Because that would be cheating.” She gave Ms. Winters a stern look and received, in exchange, a kiss on the cheek.
- Heb.: ברך (Bareich)
En.: Grace after meals
Mbr.: Mi’chai klenn gledi-ke
“I don’t know if I’m gonna make it through this,” Dr. Franklin said, leaning heavily on Mr. Garibaldi. “Do we really have to pour it all the way to the top?”
“Ah, you’ll be fine,” Mr. Garibaldi said. He clapped his friend on the back, setting the glass to shaking. “Just one more glass after this one. You don’t go on shift for a whole three hours yet. I’ll think of you fondly while I’m sleeping late in my nice... soft... bed.” He said the last words slowly, leaning in, as if expecting Dr. Franklin to droop.
But Dr. Franklin was unperturbed. “You know, I was thinking about that,” he said. “I wonder if maybe I should have a security escort to make sure everything goes okay on my shift. And in fact, maybe that security escort should stick around for the next two shifts, just to make sure the transfer happens smoothly.” He looked meaningfully at Mr. Garibaldi.
“You’re a cruel man, Stephen,” Mr. Garibaldi said, pouring his own cup full of water.
- Heb.: הלל (Hallel)
Mbr.: Be’chai erian-ke
Lennier tried to follow along in the Hebrew as Susan read; he’d only been studying a short while, and it was difficult, but the effort gave him joy. He caught her eye as she took a breath between verses. She was pink with wine and looked more than a little sleepy, but when he met her gaze, her expression was suddenly sharp and alert. She looked—he didn’t know how to describe it.
He tried to hold that moment in his mind even as it passed, as she turned away and kept reciting. Later, the closest he would come to being able to explain the feeling even to himself was by thinking of how Delenn looked when he’d first seen her, knowing she was Satai: how she seemed invested with a terrible strength and intelligence, exactly as one of the Nine ought to look. How, nevertheless, she had forced him to raise his head until he could see her own eyes staring back into his: just her eyes, soft and green, revealing the path strength takes as it grows out of experience, the way grass rises from the earth.
- Heb.: נירצה (Nirtzah)
Mbr.: Vaan quolo
“Thank you,” Susan said, looking around the room. Some guests had nodded off, including G’Kar, who was perilously close to leaning on Londo’s shoulder; Londo himself was giggling into his cup of wine and didn’t seem to notice. Captain Sheridan had unbuttoned the top of his shirt, and Mr. Garibaldi was rubbing his face to stay awake. Only Delenn looked entirely present and aware, as if this were the beginning of the ritual rather than the end. Lennier straightened his back and resolved to do the same.
Susan herself looked exhausted, but happily so. “It’s meant so much to me to have all of you here. And even if we had a few hitches—” she glanced down the table, and Lennier felt a pang strike his heart, but she was looking at Vir, who simply smiled— “that’ll make for a good story next year.” She laughed. “So,” she said, and the sudden formality of her commander’s voice roused the few guests who were drowsing. “All together now!”
Then, suddenly, to Lennier’s surprise, Susan started to sing. Captain Sheridan joined in here and there, and a few of the human guests whom Lennier did not know began to sing along. He had the sudden and disagreeable experience of being completely unprepared.
“I am sorry, Delenn,” he whispered, “I did not learn these songs beforehand in time to translate.”
Delenn simply shook her head. “I think the point is not to know already, Lennier,” she said, “but to learn.” And she began to clap along with the singing. Lennier, after a moment’s reflection, wrote down a note in his haggadah: La – song. Then, raising his hands to clap, he joined the music.
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Notes on Minbari Translation: Or, One Conlang, Three Opinions
Those of you familiar with the Minbari language will probably notice that I reconstructed (translation: made up) a lot of the words and phrases in this fic. The below notes explain my rationale; I'm not a linguist, just linguist-adjacent, but I hope this will be enjoyable anyway.
I took my corpus from this VERY SPOILERY list of words and phrases. I do not recommend clicking that link if you haven't seen the whole show.
Patterns in the Minbari corpus
Although at first glance this list of words may seem like a random mish-mash of letters, as do many constructed languages, some patterns become apparent when you compare them.
Minbari is (superficially) more similar to Japanese than to French in its spelling: for the most part, each written character represents one phoneme consistently. The broad exception seems to be dipthongs. I didn't go back and check audio from the show, but this is true as far as memory serves. This superficial similarity to Japanese makes sense with the costume choices on the show, as well as certain historical allusions (if you've watched through mid-S2, read up on the end of WWII in Japan).
Interestingly, however, Minbari has an additional feature which is also embedded in the Minbari culture on the show, but more subtly: it shows a strong preference for Old English syntax, and it appears to borrow some Old English morphemes (albeit modified). This is consonant with the "medieval" features of Minbari culture. I'm not going to go into whether these features are accurate, or whether Old English is really from the same "medieval" period as these features, because that would take several thousand words; for the purposes of thinking about what these words mean and how they're constructed, it's actually more important to note that many linguistic and cultural features of the Minbari which are represented here can also be found in the works of, you guessed it, J.R.R. Tolkien. More on that when I talk about matzah.
Additionally, Minbari uses two distinctive punctuation marks within words: the apostrophe (') and the hyphen (-). Both of these marks appear to join morphemes together which are also found in other words. However, only the hyphen appears to join the same morpheme with itself, and it also appears to adjoin nouns with modifiers. Note Klenn-Sha, Klenn-Fha, Klenn-Jha: these are different variations on the same meal, rotating every third day. I suggest that "klenn" means "ceremonial or celebratory meal" (which is how I've used it here), and the words following the hyphen are modifiers. I'm playing fast and loose with the words "morpheme" and "modifier" here, but I do think even a real linguist would agree that the hyphen and the apostrophe have different functions.
Syntax and morpheme generation
I decided to use SVO order for my syntax; this made it easier for me as a native English speaker, and it had the virtue of appearing to follow the same syntactic order as the Minbari phrases in the corpus. This only came up a few times, as I needed only a few phrases.
Here are the words I borrowed from the corpus, in the order of their appearance in this fic:
Na. "One" or "first."
Chai. "Drink." Borrowed from "Sha'chai," a non-alcoholic drink (which I assume is what Lennier and Delenn drank at the seder). Combined with the previous word, this gives us "Na'chai," or "first drink."
Jenn. A plant that tastes like garlic.
Ve and Nuzin. "I" and "you," taken from the Minbari phrases; this translation relies on the assumption of SVO order, but I'm pretty sure it's right.
Yla. A leafy vegetable sometimes made into cake. I liked the joke that Minbari actually do have something like horseradish on their world, and also the idea that they enjoy horseradish cake (although here they are clearly eating leaves, not roots).
Klenn. A ceremonial or celebratory meal (see discussion above).
La. "Song." From "ti'la," meaning "poet song."
Here are the words I created, and how:
gelomo-ke, from "Na'chai gelomo-ke," or "first drink and blessing." The world "gelomo" is made up wholesale by looking at the kinds of sounds in the word list. "-ke" is more interesting: since it appeared that Minbari likes to append modifiers or words with a hyphen, I couldn't resist throwing a little Latin into the mix. "-ke" is of course the postclitic "que," meaning "and." Latin does not use the hyphen.
bat, from "Na'bat," meaning "first washing." This is where I began to play with borrowings from Old English (or in some cases, Proto-Indo-European, if the Old English word seemed too familiar). This is from "baeth" in OE, meaning "bath"; I changed the final phoneme.
drek. "Break." I decided to take this one from the corpus; it's a modification of "drok," which I took to mean "weapons."
klor. "Tell." Entirely made up.
naha'gon. "History" or "true story of past time." Follows the structure of "Z'ha'dum," more on which later; "gon" is my morpheme for "past."
ra. "Two" or "second." Made up based on the other numbers in their counting system.
From Ve klor nuzin naha'gon. Ra'chai, meaning "I tell you the history. Second drink." Also gives us ra'bat, "second washing."
raane. "Hidden." Made up based on the corpus and the fact that I like the "aa" vowel.
mi. "Three" or "third." Follows the same number pattern. Also a little nod to my interpretation of the word "Minbari."
gledi. "Grace" or "blessing." Based ever so slightly on OE "blēdsian."
From Mi’chai klenn gledi-ke, meaning "Third drink and ceremonial meal blessing." Note that I've decided "-ke" functions syntactically to append a phrase as well as a word.
be. "Four" or "fourth." Follows the number pattern.
erian. "Praise." From OE "herian."
From Be’chai erian-ke, meaning "Fourth drink and praise." Lennier thought it was very important to keep track of the number and timing of drinks!
Vaan quolo, meaning "We accept." Plural first-person pronoun made up based on "Ve"; verb made up based on the fact that I wanted to have a qu- word.
Ironically, although "Z'ha'dum" was the first Minbari word I analyzed--many years ago now, at which time its construction seemed transparent to me--it also proved the most difficult word to fit into my overall understanding of the Minbari language. Some spoilers for the remainder of the show follow.
Compare these three words from the corpus and the following note:
Z'ha'dum: "death of the future", or "the dark future."
Mora'dum: "the application of terror."
Entil'Zha: the "Zha" word component in other Minbari words usually is a reference to "the future," so Entil'Zha's true meaning should be "the one who creates or guides the forces creating the future".
"Zha" is a component that appears in several Minabri phrases and usually refers to "the future", though its exact meaning changes depending it's use as either a suffix or a prefix and what other component makes up the full phrase. For example "Isil-zha" normally means "changing the future" while "Z'ha'dum", with the broken "zha" means the "death of the future."
This seems pretty clear, right? "Zha" means "future." This is reasonably consistent across these words: we can hypothesize that "dum" in "z'ha'dum" must be the word meaning "death" or "dark." Except... the note tells us that the breaking of the morpheme "zha" with an apostrophe is what makes the word mean "death of the future." And something else makes no sense: if "z'ha" is doing all the semantic work, then what does "dum" mean? Looking to "mora'dum," we see a common meaning (or a similar one): "terror" might be represented by "dum." But then is "dum" the part of "z'ha'dum" that means "terror," "dark," or "death," or is it "z'ha"?
I decided to use Tolkien to resolve this question. Good old JRR loved the word "doom": just picture Grumpy Hugo Weaving saying "THIS ONE... DOOM" in his very best Elrond voice at the council. He was borrowing the OE word "dōm," which meant "judgment" in a legal sense; hundreds of years later, it expanded to a Christian religious sense of "judgment," meaning "the Last Judgment." Tolkien massaged these meanings together to mean something more like "fate."
Since it was pretty clear to me that JMS and the other B5 writers were drawing on tropes and worldbuilding from The Lord of the Rings, I decided to parse these words the way Tolkien would. If we take "dum" to be the "fate" or "future" word, this gives us:
Dum. "Fate" or "future."
Z'ha'dum = ??? + "fate" or "future" = "death of the future" or "the dark future."
Z'ha = "death" or "dark."
This is then potentially consistent with "mora'dum," depending on how we interpret "mora," but definitely not with "entil'zha." I have no explanation for this except for the fact that "entil'zha" is a Vorlon loan word (true!); maybe shenanigans happened when it was borrowed into Minbari.
This is probably the most work I have ever done for a bad pun, by the way. I feel sure that Commander Ivanova would appreciate it.