Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Lost in Translation—Communication with Aliens in Star Trek

Index of "Lost in Translation" Articles

Also see an older post about translation in Star Trek:

The Universal Translator is a vital piece of technology in Star Trek. Without the Universal Translator we would probably never get to the stories themselves.

In his book, Aliens and Alien Societies, Stanley Schmidt writes:

Any time two independently evolved species come into contact, [a writer] must decide how, if at all, they’re going to learn to talk to each other…That’s likely to be a tedious process that the reader [or viewer] doesn’t care to spend much time on, so you may have to gloss over it…Science fiction writers have invented a number of more or less plausible ways to shortcut that awkward necessity. One of the most convenient is the translator, a “black box” or highly sophisticated computer that automatically translates one language into another.

So when we examine the Universal Translator (UT), we must remember that it is first and foremost a storytelling device that is “more or less plausible” (often less plausible) but necessary. Therefore, it would be unfair to subject it to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

At the same time, Star Trek is not written as pure fantasy. The UT is surely not supposed to be as whimsical as the Babel Fish of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example. Rather it is presented as the extrapolation of real-world translation technology that we have today. So there is some room for peeking under the hood, for trying to understand how the UT works, and for expecting some broad level on consistency in how it works.

Additionally, as much as we may want to gloss over issues of translation for the sake of getting to the story, sometimes the process of establishing communication is the story, or at least it can add some texture to a story.

So I am introducing an ongoing examination of issues of communication and translation in the Star Trek universe: A brief look at how the UT works (or may work). Examples where plausibility has been stretched beyond belief. Examples where issues of communication (with or without the UT) were handled quite well, or added some depth to a story.