Up to this point we have analyzed the inner workings of the Universal Translator—how pattern analysis and neural analysis might allow the device to work. Now, let’s discuss the outer workings of the device—how users would interact with it.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country does a nice job of showing translation at work, with out letting it get in the way of the story. In the process there are some scenes that illustrate the realities of using a translation device.
To Subtitle, or Not to Subtitle
One interesting scene starts with the Federation president communicating with Azetbur over subspace. We hear the conversation in English. When their conversation ends, Azetbur’s aide unrolls a map on her desk and begins talking to her in Klingon. We see English subtitles.
Either she was actually speaking to the President in English, or we were hearing things through the President’s UT. But when the Klingons speak privately, they logically are speaking their own language.
After this has gone on long enough to convey the shift from English/UT to Klingon, Chang interjects in English. At this point we understand that in reality they are still speaking Klingon, but rather than being forced to wade through an entire scene of subtitles, the UT in our own television set has kindly been activated for us.
While this scene doesn’t exactly tell us anything new about the UT, it illustrates how the translation process can be acknowledged without letting it interfere with the story itself.
“I’m Sorry, the Universal Translator Was Confiscated”
When Kirk and McCoy arrive at Rura Penthe, a large alien starts harassing Kirk, but Kirk can’t understand him because he doesn’t have his UT anymore (which he tries to communicate by making a talking gesture with his hand). An alien named Martia—later revealed to be a shapeshifter—intervenes. She explains this creature wants Kirk’s obedience to the brotherhood of aliens…and his coat.
The exchange has some interesting implications. The prisoners are evidently not allowed to have UTs. This prison is “known throughout the galaxy as the alien’s graveyard.” So restricting UTs would keep large portions of the prison population from being able to communicate with each other. In turn, it would be much more difficult to stage some kind of large-scale uprising. This would also tend to demoralize the prisoners, and create tension among the different language groups, focusing at least some of their frustration and aggression on each other rather than on the prison personnel.
On the other hand, the guards must have UTs so they can address this mixed company of aliens and be understood. So the use of translation devices in the prison is evidently selective and at the guards’ discretion.
This makes Martia an interesting character because it means she knows English, and she knows it well, along with whatever language the big guy was using. She must have spent some time around humans or studying humans before being taken to Rura Penthe. It makes you wonder why Kirk didn’t ask about it: “What’s a girl that speaks English like you doing in a place like this?” Her English was likely one of the reasons she was chosen to help Kirk and McCoy escape and then betray them. It may also have been an unspoken reason why Kirk became suspicious of her (in addition to the blankets, clothes, and “standard prison issue” flares).
“Don’t Wait for the Translation, Answer Me Now!”
The courtroom scenes provide one of the most believable and insightful moments of translation in Star Trek. First, we see General Chang speaking to the court in Klingon. The camera cuts to a booth where there are Klingons translating Chang’s words into English. Finally, we return to Kirk and McCoy who are holding Klingon walkie-talkies up to their ears, listening to the translation. From this point on we hear the Anglicized dialog.
So we’ve been shown that there is translating going on in a believable way—actually the same way it happens today at the United Nations—but we don’t get bogged down in the process. (As a side thought it subtly adds some dimension to Klingon culture. There are actually Klingons who have studied alien languages well enough to become translators. These would be some interesting Klingons to talk to. How did they end up pursuing this line of work? What do other Klingons think of the work they do? It’s not exactly a warrior kind of a job.)
The only difficulty in accepting this scene is explaining why they were using people (Klingons) to do the translating instead of the UT. But if we allow for the possibility that the UT wasn’t available or wasn’t functioning or that the Klingons chose to use their own translators for some other reason (maybe intimidating their prisoners), the effect is very nice. And it sets up a great line: “Don’t wait for the translation, answer me now!”
Dramatically, I love the line, and I love how it calls attention to the translation process we saw at the outset. But at the same time it exposes a basic logical flaw of the UT. Chang’s statement makes it clear that you have to wait for a translation. He was referring to using people to translate, but the principle would apply universally: there is no such thing as instantaneous translation.
It’s true, with a sufficiently advanced UT you could approach instantaneous translation in the sense that you could translate a word as soon as it was spoken, with only the slightest of delays. You could even imagine an analog to predictive typing where the UT anticipates the word before you finish saying it, but this would involve some obvious risks. But the problem is a word for word translation will never sound correct in the target language.
For one thing, word order will rarely match between two languages. So the Spanish “cielo alzúl” is word for word “sky blue” (which in English sounds like a specific color—I painted my room sky blue), but the phrase actually means “blue sky,” as in “Look at the blue sky!” That’s a simplistic example, but the point is while you might be able to decipher a word for word translation, it would certainly not be as seamless as the kind of translation the UT is capable of. It would sound like baby talk, or more precisely like someone reading an interlinear translation out loud.
The truth is, even the most literal translation must involve the adding of words (perhaps a definite or indefinite article or an implied pronoun or verb), and/or the taking away of words, and/or the rearranging of words. It’s the only way to properly and clearly convey the thought. Good translation involves the translating of complete thoughts, not words.
So to do it’s job, the UT, like a human translator, would need to buffer enough of a sentence to reconstruct the thought in the target language. This would take time. Processing time aside, it would take time just to wait for the person to talk long enough to capture the complete thought.
The only advantage we might give the UT is that it has some ability to scan brain activity. So perhaps this would aid it in capturing a complete thought before it is completely spoken. But as mentioned before, for dramatic and logistical reasons the brain scanning capacity of the UT must be seriously limited. After all, it would be a poor device to use in diplomatic situations if it might accidentally translate something you were about to say, but realize was better left unsaid.
Generally we do not see this kind of delay when the UT is used. No one has to “wait for the translation.” (Well, almost no one, I’ll discuss some exception(s) in the future.) This may generally fall under the category of story telling convention—we might assume that there is a delay, we just aren’t bothered with it on screen because it would distract from the story telling. But there are also times when the delay is clearly not supposed to be happening at all, which is very difficult to explain away. (Again, a matter for future discussion.)
The Undiscovered Country also contributes one more significant UT scene that I’ll analyze (and nitpick) on its own. See Chekov's line: “We must respond personally. The Universal Translator would be recognized.”