On Universal Translators – Or How We Take Translation for Granted

I was watching “Improbable Cause” today because Deep Space Nine is my jam, and while Dr. Bashir is trying to impress upon the irascible Garak the moral of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, my mind drifted to a very strange thing.

How was he telling this story? Even with a universal translator, how does one communicate specifically human concepts like “shepherds” and “wolves”?

Obviously, the moral cannot be translated, as Garak’s reaction to the lesson was “never tell the same lie twice”, instead of the human, “maybe we shouldn’t lie repeatedly.”

But there is a more pedantic problem with the story. There are words in this simple story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” that have absolutely no context for an alien species. They may not have herded animals the same way we do, shepherds may not even exist in this new era of space travel, or they don’t have carnivorous animals that ate stock animals (if they even raise animals). Who knows.

It makes one wonder at just how clunky universal translators must be in science fiction, and why we think that translating language is as simple as converting kilometers to miles (a problem we have now, to be frank).

I imagine that story probably sounded like this to Garak:

“The boy who looks after ungulate species known for hair that is used to make clothing cried out that there was a large carnivore that typically eats these ungulates and humans approaching.”

If you think that Star Trek has addressed in the episode “Darmok” you’re right. But it’s far more widespread than just that culture, which is something I address in my article “We Are Living the Darmok Dream“.

What’s more, there are technical aspects that remain unaddressed with universal translators in science fiction.

For example, wouldn’t anyone using a universal translator be speaking like they are dubbed? Ie., their mouths moving at a different rate than the words they are speaking? Think about it. Their lips should be forming the words in their own language, which will certainly not match the language their conversation partner is hearing.

Even more concerning is how are they achieving noise cancellation. If Garak is speaking Cardassi, and Bashir only hears English, how does the translator cancel the actual words Garak is speaking without dampening the English as well?

Honestly, the more I think about the Universal Translators, the more I’m disappointing science fictions fans are okay with the magical hand wave that says “shhhh…. they all speak English and that makes sense”.

Sure, there is scifi that addresses it more believably. The Nakai are only able to communicate in Stargate Universe through rudimentary words that they gleaned from telepathically torturing Rush. In District 9, any communication they have is colored by the fact they aren’t really sure if they understand one another, regardless of cultural context.

But that is almost too easy. I want some hard science fiction that actually engages with the concept of cultural translation and the mechanics of the equipment and coding that would be required for alien species to totally understand one another.

Frankly, it’s a little sad to me the most believable Universal Translator is the Babel Fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which is only scifi because it takes place in space). That’s right, a fish that sits in your ear and translates what you hearand is so miraculous and explainable that it is cited as evidence that God existsis the most believable form of Universal Translation.

I think perhaps it’s because we as people do not understand what translation really is. Unless you’re bilingual, you just accept that the subtitles on your favorite movies are correct. We don’t realize how much is retranslated just so we can have a cultural touchstone for something we wouldn’t understand.

After all, that is how manga is translated. First, you have a direct translation, which no monolingual English speaker would understand because it would be littered with incomplete sentences, implied subjects, and contextual levels of politeness that only have one translation for the all of them. Then, someone goes through it, and localizes it. They take out celebrities you don’t know, and add one that sort of makes sense in the joke. They replace rudeness with curse words, and try to rework puns into a language that doesn’t use the same sounds.

This is why Pokemon, Brock holds up a rice ball, and says “These donuts are great.”


Note that Brock isn’t actually his name, but that’s magic of localization.

Essentially, science fiction is very good at commenting on current structures in our world, or analyzing where our future may go, but when it comes to culture and and mechanics of it, it fails to looks seriously at language as a serious hurdle for technology to overcome.

One thought on “On Universal Translators – Or How We Take Translation for Granted

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