The universal translator is a fictional device common to many science fiction works, especially on television. Its purpose is to offer an instant translation of any language. Like hyperdrive, a universal translator is a somewhat improbable technology that is an accepted convention in science fiction stories and serves as a useful plot device. As a convention, it is used to remove the problem of translating between alien languages, unless that problem is essential to the plot. To translate a new language in every episode when a new species or culture is encountered would consume time (especially when most of these shows have a half-hour or one-hour format) normally allotted for plot development and would potentially, across many episodes, become repetitive to the point of annoyance. Occasionally, alien races are able to extrapolate the rules of English from very little speech and then immediately be fluent in it, making the translator unnecessary.
While a universal translator seems unlikely, due to the apparent need for telepathy, scientists continue to work towards similar real-world technologies involving small numbers of known languages. See machine translation and speech recognition for discussions of real-world natural language processing technologies.
As a rule, a universal translator is instantaneous, but if that language has never been recorded, there is sometimes a time delay until the translator can properly work out a translation, as in the case of Star Trek. Some writers seek greater plausibility by instead having computer translation that requires collecting a database of the new language, often by listening to radio transmissions.
The existence of a universal translator is sometimes problematic in film and television productions from a logical perspective (for example, aliens who still speak English when no universal translator is in evidence and all characters appear to hear the appropriately translated speech instead of the original speech, the ability to speak in the language when direct translation is possible), and requires some suspension of disbelief when characters' mouths move in sync with the translated words and not the original language; nonetheless, it removes the need for cumbersome and potentially extensive subtitles, and it eliminates the rather unlikely supposition that every other race in the galaxy has gone to the trouble of learning English.
Using a telepathic field, the TARDIS automatically translates most comprehensible languages (written and spoken) into a language understood by its pilot and each of the crew members The field also translates what they say into a language appropriate for that time and location (i.e. speaking the appropriate dialect of Latin when in ancient Rome). This system has frequently been featured as a main part of the show. The TARDIS, and by extension a number of its major systems, including the translator, are telepathically linked to its pilot, The Doctor. None of these systems appears able to function reliably when the Doctor is incapacitated.
On the TV show Farscape John Crichton is injected with a conceivable bacteria, called translator microbes, which functions as standard (likely de facto) form a Universal Translator. The microbes colonize at brain stem and translate for the host anything spoken to him/her/it, and, then passing along the translated information to the host's brain. This does not enable the injected person to speak other languages, they continue to speak in their own language and are merely understood by others as long as they possess the microbes. The microbes sometimes fail to properly translate slang, translating it literal meaning. Also, the translator microbes are unable to translate the natural language of the alien Pilots because every word in their language can contain thousands of meanings, too much for the microbes to translate (Pilots must learn to speak in "simple sentences"). The implanted can learn to speak new languages if they want or to make communicating with non-injected individuals possible. The crew of Moya learned English from their human friend John Crichton, later visited Earth and were able to communicate with the non-implanted populace. Some species such as the Kalish cannot take translator microbes because their body rejects them so they must learn a new language the hard way.
Almost everybody in the Futurama universe speaks English, with no explanation being given, though it is possibly because Earth seems to be a fairly dominant planet in galactic politics. A Universal Translator does exist, created by Professor Farnsworth, but while it can translate any language, it can only translate them into French (which, by the year 3000, is a dead language; in the French version of Futurama, the dead language is German).
In the FreeSpace series, there is a rough translator used to translate the Vasudan language to English (and possibly vice versa.)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
In the universe of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", universal translation is made possible by a small fish. The fish is inserted into the auditory canal where it feeds off the mental frequencies of those speaking to its host. In turn it excretes a translation into the brain of its host.
The book remarks that, by allowing everyone to understand each other, the babel fish has caused more wars than anything else in the universe.
The book also explains that the babel fish could not possibly have developed naturally, and therefore proves the existence of God as its creator. Since God needs faith to exist, and this proof dispels the need for faith, this therefore causes God to vanish "in a puff of logic".
The Last Starfighter
Alex Rogan was taken to the Starfighter Command on Rylos, where he was later given a chip that was attached to the collar part of his shirt, so Alex could hear English from the Rylos race and other alien races.
In the Star Control computer game series, almost all races are implied to have universal translators; however, discrepancies between the ways aliens choose to translate themselves sometimes crop up and complicate communications. The VUX, for instance, are cited as having uniquely advanced skills in linguistics and are able to translate human language long before humans are capable of doing the same to the VUX. This created a problem during the first contact between Vux and humans, in a starship commanded by Captain Rand. According to Star Control: Great Battles of the Ur-Quan Conflict, Captain Rand is referred to as saying "That is one ugly sucker" when the image of a VUX first came onto his viewscreen. However, in Star Control II, Captain Rand is referred to as saying "That is the ugliest freak-face I've ever seen" to his first officer, along with joking that the VUX name stands for Very Ugly Xenoform. It is debatable which source is canon. Whichever the remark, it is implied that the VUX's advanced Universal Translator technologies conveyed the exact meaning of Captain Rand's words. The effete VUX used the insult as an excuse for hostility toward humans.
Also, a new race called the Orz was introduced in Star Control II. They presumably come from another dimension, and at first contact, the ship's computer says that there are many vocal anomalies in their language resulting from their referring to concepts or phenomena for which there are no equivalents in human language. The result is dialogue that is a patchwork of ordinary words and phrases marked with *asterisk pairs* indicating that they are very loose translations of unique Orz concepts into human language, a full translation of which would probably require paragraph-long definitions. (For instance, the Orz refer to the human dimension as *heavy space* and their own as *Pretty Space*, to various categories of races as *happy campers* or *silly cows*, and so on.)
In the other direction, the Supox are a race portrayed as attempting to mimic as many aspects of other races' language and culture as possible when speaking to them, to the point of referring to their own planet as “Earth,” also leading to confusion.
In Star Control III, the K’tang are portrayed as an intellectually inferior species using advanced technology they do not fully understand in order to intimidate people, perhaps explaining why their translators’ output is littered with misspellings and nonstandard usages of words, like threatening to “crushify” the player. Along the same lines, the Daktaklakpak dialogue is highly stilted and contains many numbers and mathematical expressions, implying that, as a mechanical race, their thought processes are inherently too different from humans’ to be directly translated into human language.
In the television shows Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, there are no personal translation devices used, and most alien and Human cultures on other planets speak English. The makers of the show have themselves admitted this on the main SG-1 site, stating that this is to save spending ten minutes an episode on characters learning a new language (early episodes of SG-1 revealed the difficulties of attempting to write such processes into the plot). In the season 8 finale of SG-1, “Moebius (Part II),” the characters go back in time to 3000 B.C. and one of them teaches English to the people there. Fans have speculated that the language could have been secretly adopted then and carried on from planet to planet, leading to today’s situation in which most planets speak English. This interpretation is severely strained, to say the least; it entirely lacks any sort of scientific credibility, especially considering the fact that almost every alien race encountered in every Stargate series speaks nearly perfect, modern English, when a language would almost certainly change beyond recognition in that length of time.
A notable exception to this rule are the Goa’uld, who occasionally speak their own language amongst themselves or when giving orders to their Jaffa. This is never subtitled, but occasionally a translation is given by a third character (usually Teal’c or Daniel Jackson), ostensibly for the benefit of the human characters nearby who do not speak Goa’uld. The Asgard are also shown having their own “language” (apparently related to the Norse languages), although it is in fact English played backwards. (see Hermiod).
Given that the Asgard and the Ancients were existent in the same 'Alliance of Four Great Races', it is possible that English was used as the universal language mentioned in "The Torment of Tantalus". Considering also that both races play or played a pivotal role in the interplanetary relations of several galaxies, as well as dealings with the Goa'uld, this could be the explanation of the existence of English as a semi-universal language. This would mean that, instead of other planets speaking Earth-developed English, Earth is in actuality speaking Alien-developed English, and as the Asgard and Goa'uld are cited as the source of a number of other Earth languages, would seem to be the case.
In Star Trek, the Universal Translator was used by Ensign Hoshi Sato, the communications officer on the Enterprise in Star Trek: Enterprise, to invent the linguacode matrix in her late 30s. It was supposedly first used in the late 22nd century on Earth for the instant translation of well-known Earth languages. Gradually, with the removal of language barriers, Earth’s disparate cultures came to terms of universal peace. Translations of previously unknown languages, such as those of aliens, required more difficulties to be overcome. Like most other common forms of Star Trek technology (warp drive, transporters, etc.), the Universal Translator was probably developed independently on several worlds as an inevitable requirement of space travel; certainly the Vulcans had no difficulty communicating with humans upon making “first contact” (although the Vulcans could have learned Standard English from monitoring Earth radio transmissions).
Improbably, the universal translator has been successfully used to interpret non-biological lifeform communication (in the Original Series episode “Metamorphosis”). In the Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episode “The Ensigns of Command,” the translator proved ineffective with the language of the Sheliaks, so the Federation had to depend on the aliens’ interpretation of Earth languages. It is speculated that the Sheliak communicate amongst themselves in extremely complex legalese. The TNG episode “Darmok” also illustrates another instance where the universal translator proves ineffective and unintelligible, because the Tamarian language is too deeply rooted in local metaphor.
Unlike virtually every other form of Federation technology, Universal Translators almost never break down. Although they were clearly in widespread use during Captain Kirk’s time (inasmuch as the crew regularly communicated with species who could not conceivably have knowledge of Standard English), it is unclear where they were carried on personnel of that era; possibly they existed as implanted devices before that practice was deemed too potentially dangerous and discarded by the era of Next Generation.
The episode “Metamorphosis” was the only time in which the device was actually seen. During Kirk's era, they were also apparently less perfect in their translations into Klingon. In the sixth Star Trek film, the characters are seen relying on print books in order to communicate with a Klingon military ship, since Chekov said that the Klingons would recognize the use of a Translator. Actress Nichelle Nichols reportedly protested this scene, as she felt that Uhura, as communications officer, would be fluent in Klingon. The novelization of that movie provided a different reason for the use of books: sabotage by somebody working on the Starfleet side of the conspiracy uncovered by the crew in the story, but the novelization is not part of the Star Trek canon.
By the 24th century, Universal Translators are built into the communicator pins worn by Starfleet personnel, although, since crew members (such as Riker in the Next Generation episode “First Contact”) have spoken to newly encountered aliens even when deprived of their communicators, some other factor must also be at work.
In some episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, we see a Cardassian universal translator at work. It takes some time to process an alien language, whose speakers are initially not understandable but as they continue speaking, the computer gradually learns their language and renders it into Standard English (also known as Federation Standard).
Ferengi customarily wear their Universal Translators as an implant in their ears. In The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) episode “Little Green Men,” the humans without translators are able to understand the Ferengi once the Ferengi get their own translators working. Similarly, throughout all Trek series, a Universal Translator possessed by only one party is able to audibly broadcast the results within a limited range, enabling communication between two or more parties, all speaking different languages. The devices appear to be standard equipment on starships and space stations, where a communicator pin would therefore presumably not be strictly necessary.
Since the Universal Translator presumably does not physically affect the process by which the user's vocal cords (or alien equivalent) forms audible speech (i.e. the user is nonetheless speaking in his/her/its own language regardless of the listener's language), the listener apparently hears only the speaker's translated words and not the alien language that the speaker is actually, physically articulating; the unfamiliar oratory is therefore not only translated but somehow replaced. This implies the Universal Translator may work at least partially on a telepathic level. There is no explanation why we could hear not-translated words like klingon.
The Star Wars films feature a situation where there is a galaxywide lingua franca, Galactic Basic, which sounds remarkably like English (although the written form, Aurebesh, replaces each letter with a different shape); it is unsure if the language is supposed to sound exactly like English, or if it is supposed to be “translated” into English. Unlike, for instance, the Stargate universe, the different species are shown to have their own languages (for instance, Huttese), which are “translated” for the viewer by means of subtitles, or a third character acting as an interpreter. The idea of a common language being spread throughout the galaxy is consistent with the Star Wars universe’s concept of a galaxywide unified government (the Old Republic) having existed for millennia.
A Universal Translator machine can be found in the game Unreal as a usable item. It is mostly used to read Nali and Skaarj inscriptions from books, screens etc.
Most of the time, the universal translator is depicted as a machine that works with a communications monitor. An exception is the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a small organism that fits in the user’s ear. (The Babel fish itself is a parody of the universal translator convention.)
Another exception is the “translator microbes” from the Farscape series, which were probably inspired by the Babel fish.
In K. A. Applegate’s famous science fiction series, Animorphs, all Andalite warriors have miniature translator chips in their brains, which enable them to readily understand any spoken alien language. This is mentioned in The Hork-Bajir Chronicles and The Andalite Chronicles. However, in the series most aliens possess “thought-speak,” a type of telepathic communication, which operates more on the essence of thoughts than the words themselves; thus, an alien can thought-speak in their own language, but everyone hears it as their own. When morphed into a non-thought-speaking creature, such as a human, aliens seem to gain the ability to speak English, possibly due to a translator. Some aliens also seem to speak English without a translator, such as the free Hork-Bajir (who could have picked it up when they were Controllers interacting with Human-Controllers) and the last Arn (who explains that he studied the language, learning it quickly while in orbit). There is also a lingua franca called galard, used in communication between aliens capable of speaking it.
In the video game The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Link learns to talk to the inch-high Minish race by eating a Jabber Nut acquired in the Minish village. Minish seems to be the only language that Jabber Nuts enable the user to speak, as otherwise the Minish would eat the nuts themselves and learn to speak English. When Link is in his Minish form, he can talk to animals such as dogs, cats, chickens, cows and horses; it is unknown whether this is an effect of the Nut or of Minish DNA.
In the game Tombi, the titular character learns how to speak to Dwarves by biting one on the head several times. If one tries to speak to the Dwarves before the language is learned entirely, the Dwarves appear to speak a mixture of the language being played in and gibberish.
In anime and manga series Doraemon, one of recurring items is translation konjac, who enable everyone who eats it to be fluent in any language on current universe.
In the videogame Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, the universal translator is a secret project which gives the player two new technologies, which are supposedly taken from the abandoned monoliths the alien race left behind.
Published - October 2008
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