Saturday, December 13, 2008

You Say Utopia, I Say Planitia

To update an older discussion - I came across one more glimpse of Utopia Planitia that predates the Voyager episode "Relativity." In the seventh season TNG episode, "Parallels" there is an image of Utopia Planitia taken by the Argus Array (see the image in the lower right of the display). Admittedly this is the Utopia Planitia from a parallel universe, but "our" Worf didn't identify any major discrepancy between this Utopia Planitia and the "real" one.

While the visual evidence is not entirely clear, it looks to me like this is not an orbital facility, but rather something on the surface of Mars. The display seems to make a distinction between orbital stations on the left and planetary locations on the right. It also appears that all of the structures are built between the craters. An orbital station would visually overlap at least some of the craters on the ground.

On the other hand, even if it is an orbital facility it still looks markedly different from what we see in "Relativity." However the last season of TNG should roughly correspond with the time period just before the first season of Voyager - the time period we're witnessing in "Relativity."

Three possible explanations for the inconsistency: (1) The shipyards are very large and we are just seeing two different portions of the same facility in these two episodes. (2) The orbital facility is modular (which it appears to be in "Relativity") and its configuration can be significantly changed even within a few months time. (3) There is a ground-based and an orbital part of the shipyards. Perhaps some components are fabricated on the ground and then ferried into orbit where major construction is completed. Interestingly, the existence of a ground facility would also provide some justification for the ground based production of the Enterprise as shown in the trailers for the upcoming Star Trek movie.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Past Tense" (DS9)

I'm definitely not the first to say it, but watching Deep Space Nine now, it's amazing to see how stories about toppled regimes, provisional governments, terrorists and freedom fighters, political and religious corruption have become even more meaningful now than when they were first written. I thought something similar about the socio-economic issues dealt with in "Past Tense." Re-watching this story also raised some questions in my mind about the time travel involved.

"Past Tense" - Future Imperfect

Here we have an interesting glimpse into the near future. Of course, it was the near future back when the show first aired in 1995, but it's even closer now. One thing the show failed to predict is the prevalence of cell phones and other wireless devices. We see one wireless phone in the episode, but we don't see a single mobile phone. There's also not a flat screen to be seen - just a lot of bulky terminals.

I'm sure it made sense at the time, but as far as connecting to the Net goes, we already have a much more advanced looking world - just walk into any Panera or Starbucks and you can see that. But in terms of the social relevance of this story, you can see that at Panera and Starbucks too. At the end of each day Panera donates baked goods to local charities - a noble gesture but also a powerful reminder that poverty, homelessness, and inadequate care for the mentally ill is a persistent problem.

On the DVD special features, Ira Steven Behr explains that while this episode was filming the mayor of L.A. suggested setting aside a portion of the city as a Haven for the homeless. (You can read more background on the episode here.) While I am not aware of anything specifically like that happening now, there is something very familiar about the social worker saying to Sisko and Bashir, 'You know, with the economy the way it is . . .'

The gap between the Chris Brynners and Gabriel Bells of the world does not seem to be getting any smaller.

A Matter of Time Travel

Regarding the time travel in this episode, I have this question: Was the time-line actually changed? I have always assumed it was when the real Gabriel Bell died, and then restored (more or less) when Sisko took his place. But watching the episode again I wondered if perhaps Sisko was really supposed to be there all along.

Sisko works to establish a connection to the Net so Sanctuary residents can broadcast messages about themselves and their families. He recalls that this happened the "first" time around and had a major impact on public opinion of the Sanctuary Districts. He wonders if Bell was the one who somehow got them a connection.

(Of course, all he really needed was a video phone with Internet access and a YouTube account, but as mentioned the realities of wireless communication were obviously not anticipated.)

As things work out it is Jadzia - working on Bell/Sisko's behalf - who convinces the communications executive Chris Brynner to illegally establish a connection. If Sisko and company never went back in time, how did Gabriel Bell pull this off? If Sisko is the one who got a connection to the Net (with Jadzi'a help), then doesn't this suggest he was the one who kept the hostages safe in the first place?

Now it could be argued that if the time travel that was "supposed" to happen (if it was "predestined"), it should not have produced an alternate future that needed to be restored. On the other hand, it's already strange that the effects of Sisko's interference weren't immediately noticed.

There were instantaneous effects from similar interference in "The City on the Edge of Forever" (TOS), "Yesterday's Enterprise" (TNG), and First Contact (as seen by the sensor readings of an Earth completely transformed by the Borg). Here there is an abrupt change in the "present" some time after Sisko was already in the past, as if it took time for the changes in the time-line to be felt. Why? Why didn't O'Brien detect the transporter malfunction, and immediately thereafter detect that all of Starfleet was gone?

From a story telling standpoint this allows us to track the parallel stories of Sisko in the past with the Defiant in the present until the moment of the decisive change, and then see its consequences. It makes for a dramatic cliff hanger, but it's really a very strange way for time to behave.

We can rationalize that these strange side-effects may be peculiarities of the already strange cloak-transporter-random-singularity method of time travel. But imagine for a moment that the time travel effect didn't protect the Defiant from the changes in the time-line. The Defiant would have vanished with the rest of Starfleet when Sisko and Bashir changed the time-line, then it would have reappeared when Sisko and Bashir restored the time-line.

All this would have happened in the blink of an eye. O'Brien and Kira would continue there rescue mission unaware of the impact Sisko had on the time-line. The peril would be just as real, but not as effectively dramatized because we wouldn't get to see the Defiant crew react to the broken time-line. At best we would just see the Defiant disappear (as the omniscient audience, along the lines of "Yesterday's Enterprise").

In other words the temporary creation of an alternate future may be part of the predestined time loop. Maybe we should call this the "Pluperfect Past Tense," as in "What in pluperfect past tense was that?".

To me, the "changes" in the alternate time-line are not as strong an argument against the idea that this was predestined as the fact Sisko never noticed his own picture in the historical records. This episode establishes him as an avid student of 21st century history, and he knew a lot about the Bell riots specifically. How did he never see that? I have no satisfactory answer to that question, other than the possibility that he just so happened to never look at a picture of the man before (or he never scrutinized the picture(s) he saw - none of us would expect to see ourselves in a history book anyways).

I guess the question is: What is harder to believe? That the real Gabriel Bell had some connection to Brynner or someone else with enough power to circumvent the government lock-out, or that Sisko never noticed that Gabriel Bell looked just like him? Either way we have a lot of explaining away to do.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"Riddles" (VOY)

Tuvok and Neelix have been the obvious odd couple on the ship since Neelix first tried to hug "Mister Vulcan" in the pilot episode. "Riddles" may be the strongest and most touching episode in the Tuvok-Neelix arc. Here the true depth of their friendship is established. Really, it is probably this episode which carries the emotional weight of Tuvok's "dance" for Neelix when he departs at the end of the next season.

The premise is an attack by a shadowy (pun intended) race called the Ba'neth leaves Tuvok in a coma. He wakes up mute, disoriented, and with a severe brain injury that leaves him in an child-like state. To obtain information on the weapon, Janeway teams up with an alien investigator to track down Tuvok's assailant.

That plot in itself is fairly standard, and it's not the only time the Doctor has claimed he needs more information about a weapon to undue the damage that it has caused. That seems like a stretch - something like saying I need to see the knife that stabbed this man before I can give him stitches. But I suppose mysterious brain injuries are a little more complicated than puncture wounds.

But the mystery of the Ba'neth and the medical miracle it will take to bring Tuvok back are really not what sells this story. It is a story about characters, primarily Neelix and Tuvok, and therein lies its greatest strength.

Tuvok: We have seen angry, violent Tuvok back in season two (“Meld”), but here we can see Tuvok scared, frustrated, laughing, smiling, and just having a good time. It’s wonderful, and a testimony to the skill of Tim Russ as an actor. He’s played the stoic Vulcan so well for so many years that you could really start to think he is a stoic Vulcan. But here we see his range.

This adds dimension to the issue of Vulcan emotions. ‘When is a Vulcan not a Vulcan?’ Just when he looses his logic? Really he lost more than that since a Vulcan without logic pretty quickly spirals out of control. A healthy Vulcan must repress his emotions to remain stable. Vulcan’s who have experimented otherwise seem to self-destruct pretty quickly. (See “Fusion” ENT for example.)

Perhaps Tuvok does not remain in this condition long enough to see what the full impact of his freely expressed emotions will be, but he certainly seemed stable. Stunted, limited, but stable. Even his tirade in sickbay seemed no more explosive than any human tirade—it’s certainly nothing on the level of the fury we saw when he melded with Lom Suder. So I think he really lost more than his logic. He also lost the violent emotions that Vulcan logic keeps in check.

So maybe Vulcan emotional balance is possible, but at quite a cost.

While watching Tim Russ perform is the real treat of the episode, Neelix is the driving force behind the story. Here we get to see Neelix at his best. While the episode starts with some fairly standard Neelix-irritates-Tuvok routines, we quickly see the depth of his loyalty and, in the end, his selflessness. He is willing to do whatever he can to help his friend, and he’s willing to restore Tuvok to his former self, even if it means being merely tolerated by him.

Neelix says he’s doing it because the ship needs its tactical officer. I think even more so it's because he wants to do what is best for Tuvok, even if that means Tuvok will no longer reciprocate their friendship.

Janeway’s best moment in the episode is probably when Neelix tells her that between tending to Tuvok and piloting the flyer he didn’t think to take more scans of the attacker. Janeway’s reply is pitch perfect. She reassures Neelix that no one is disappointed in him. He did everything he could. He brought Tuvok back to safety. They would figure out the rest.

However if there is one weakness to this episode, it is probably the characterization of her relationship with Tuvok. Really, it’s not a problem unique to this episode. Tuvok is supposed to be her closest friend and confidante, and we’ve seen them act this way sometimes, but there never seems to be the consistent comradery between them we would expect. (They never even approach a Kirk-Spock friendship for example.)

I would expect her concern for Tuvok to be more like what we’ll see in the series finale, where an alternate future Tuvok suffers from a mentally debilitating disease. Instead she plays the concerned captain, makes some effort to protect Tuvok from Naroq’s bull-headed investigation, and she even makes one request for a private meal with Tuvok. But she still seems much too distracted with Naroq and the Ba’neth for my taste.

Maybe that really is Janeway’s personality—she is a scientist at heart. But I also think there’s a dramatic logic to it. The strength of the episode lies in the Tuvok-Neelix relationship. If Janeway were too heavily involved, it would distract from that. So having “baby” Tuvok imprint on friendly Neelix when he comes out of his coma effectively sidelines Janeway’s involvement, since Tuvok is reluctant to trust anyone else in his current condition.

Naroq: Naroq annoys me at first. He’s overenthusiastic, like a lot of Trek aliens really. And his introduction is a little odd to me. He announces his own name as he strolls into the conference room. Why wasn’t he met in the transporter room like any other dignitary? What red shirt did they sent to fetch him so he could enter with his cheesy introductory line?

But he gains some depth when he sacrifices the secrets of his scanning equipment to save Tuvok. This is a noble, but also reasonable act on his part. The Ba’neth see a way to protect their anonymity, and Naroq can seek a different way to find them another day. It’s a cold war compromise.

Seven of Nine: Seven of Nine plays a limited role in the episode, mostly as a helper for Naroq, but she also plays off of Neelix in the pivotal scene in the episode. It brings together the Ba’neth investigation with Neelix’ efforts to help Tuvok. They meet in the darkened mess hall contemplating their respective “riddles.” Seven gives Neelix the answer he needs—don’t try to restore Tuvok to what he was before, help him realize the potential of what he has become.

It seems to me that Voyager has a long tradition of characters giving speeches where they draw comparisons between their personal situation and a current crisis. I think it’s usually Seven of Nine who gets these speeches. ‘When I was freed from the collective I faced a challenge very much like . . . the Doctor’s quest for individuality, B’Ellana’s efforts to fit in on a Starfleet ship, the Captain’s tendency to burn pot roasts . . .’

Well, you get the idea.

Here the comparison works reasonably well, although Seven’s “loss” was an overwhelmingly positive change in her life (even if she didn’t see it that way at the time); whereas Tuvok’s loss is quite negative even if he can manage to find a new purpose in life.

Chakotay: Chakotay doesn’t have too much to do in this episode other than making bridge officer noises, but he does have one great moment. When Neelix brings Tuvok to the bridge, and escorts him off when he sets off alarms and buzzers, Chakotay reacts to the sight of his debilitated comrade. Robert Beltran’s face and body language alone convey deep discomfort and concern. It’s a wonderful touch.

You might say this episode is a more character driven version of “Cathexis.” Like Chakotay used the stones in his medicine bundle to chart a course for the ship, Tuvok is able to put a cloaking frequency into the icing on the cake. But here we’re a lot less focused on paranoia, suspense, and plot twists, and more focused on the people we care about.

And of course something of Tuvok’s humanizing experience carries over into the closing scene—some glimmer of human illogic has stuck with him. And those are the kinds of moments Trek is all about.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lost in Translation — Horta Hears a Who

“The Devil in the Dark” is basically the early prototype for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Of course, “The Devil in the Dark” doesn’t have time travel or all of the fish-out-of-water gags of the movie, but at the core these are both stories about communication—and of the conflict that can grow out of a lack of communication. In his book, I Am Spock, Leonard Nimoy makes a direct link between his fondness for this episode and his inspiration for The Voyage Home.

The Horta is an interesting case study of the difficulties of translation. First, there is the mechanical hurdle—this creature has no speech organs. As Phillip Morrison indicated, in a diversely populated universe what we think of as speech can hardly be universal. We have to wonder, how quickly would we recognize intelligence and communication from totally alien life-forms? The seemingly omniscient UT simply is no match for the Horta (or the whales, or the mystery probe that came to find them).

Spock makes an attempt to mind-meld with the creature, and has only limited success. But there was enough contact for the Horta to learn to write "NO KILL I" in the rock, thus overcoming the aural communication barrier. It's amazing that the creature could so quickly learn even a rudimentary version of written English, considering a written language would probably be as foreign to these creatures as a spoken one. (I also think it would have been interesting to see the Horta pick up some Vulcan script instead of English - or a mixture of the two.) Nevertheless, this is one of the most creative attempts at communication we've seen in Star Trek.

The syntax of the message demonstrates another challenge of translation. Kirk wonders, "'NO KILL I' What is that, a plea for us not to kill it or a promise that it won't kill us?" When we learn another language, our precision suffers. Even the Universal Translator would have this kind of learning curve. There must be times when a translation is vague enough to be confusing (which is why the TNG Technical Manual suggests that the UT cannot be used for diplomatic purposes without adequate exposure to the target language).

The communication gap is finally bridged by a full mind-meld. At first even this mind-to-mind communication produces only cryptic phrases. But as with the whales in Star Trek IV, Spock’s telepathic ability ultimately provides a level of understanding no conventional method could accomplish. What makes this possible? Well, we return to the same premise that makes a mind-reading UT at least plausible—namely that there really are universal thought patterns and an underlying structure to language that can be detected and understood.

Next: Uhura's linguistic skill are nicely updated in Star Trek XI.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Lost in Translation—They Sure Don't Sound Like Son'a To Me

Reflecting on the role of translation in the Star Trek movies brings us to Star Trek: Insurrection. Now in this film, translation plays no role whatsoever, and therein lies the problem.

One of the difficulties of this movie is explaining the revelation that the Son'a are really the Ba'ku. This raises a lot of questions about where they got their ships, how they have represented themselves as an entire race and a force to be reckoned with, how they were able to enslave two other races and so on.

I would guess they misrepresented themselves to the Federation like so many Gibeonites (see Joshuah 9:3-15), and the Federation didn't probe too deeply because of the questionable nature of the whole matter. But that simplistic explanation doesn't really account for everything. You can read a much more thorough exploration of the the Son'a problem here, along with some theories that try to explain it away.

No matter how we explain their deception, it seems incredible that none of the Federation teams involved in this mission noticed what Dr. Crusher discovered from a simple (for the 24th century) DNA scan.

But there's a problem that would have been even more obvious to any observers: language.

Didn't anyone notice that the Son'a and the Ba'ku were speaking the same language? Wouldn't the UT instantly pick up on that?

In other words, for the ruse to work, the Son'a had to create or learn an entirely foreign language and always speak it in the presence of anyone from the Federation. This would even require that the written language used on the ships' systems and other technology would have to be re-invented. Even with 100 years for the language of the two groups to diverge there should be striking similarities in phonetics, grammar, character sets, and so on. For example, we readily recognize Shakespearean English as English.

Well perhaps that's exactly what they did - perhaps they even drew on another Ba'ku language no longer used in the colony in the Briar Patch. Even so, when the Son'a prisoners were being held captive in the Ba'ku village, did they remain completely speechless so their friends and families wouldn't notice they were speaking a Ba'ku language? Did they speak some completely alien language so perfectly that they weren't given away by a Ba'ku accent?

It's a shame that the matter of language was not addressed or at least acknowledged, because maybe just maybe no one took a DNA scan, but everyone has ears, and everyone has a Universal Translator.

NEXT: Horta Hears a Who

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lost in Translation — There Be Whales Here

While Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country wove issues of translation and communication into the story, in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home issues of translation and communication are the story. More than any of the other movies, and more than all but maybe a handful of episodes, the drama of this story grows directly out of the complexities of communicating with alien life-forms.

In his book I Am Spock, Leonard Nimoy provides some insight into the creative process behind this movie. Early on he consulted with three scientists involved in the SETI program, including Philip Morrison. Morrison argued strongly that communication with an alien life form would be virtually impossible: In addition to the mechanical problems of having radically different speech organs, the thought process and shared experience from a totally alien environment and path of evolution would leave even a translated sentence incomprehensible.

Of course, in the Star Trek universe we are dealing with a lot of humanoid aliens that generally share a common genetic ancestry (see "The Chase", TNG). I have already commented that this likely makes the thorny process of translation at least a little bit easier - certainly easier than Morrison's concept of intelligence that is radically different. But his comments helped Nimoy consider the possibility of other forms of life and other forms of communication. That idea became the foundation of the story.

As the movie begins, a powerful probe approaches earth and transmits a signal that the Universal Translator cannot decode. Messages sent to the probe are either not understood or ignored. As it begins to vaporize the oceans, Spock deduces that this message is actually for humpback whales - the signal is essentially a form of whale song.

The problem is the humpbacks are extinct and cannot provide an answer. The implication is that whale songs are a form of communication so alien that the UT cannot unravel them. The only solution? Time travel, of course!

Once the whales are brought back from the past, they are able to communicate with the probe and send it on its way. Creating this sequence created some behind-the-scene's controversy. Nimoy explains:
Morrison’s response had a wonderful, profound effect on my thinking about these issues. (And upon the Star Trek IV script, in which Spock tell McCoy, “There are other forms of intelligence on Earth, Doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the [probe’s] message must be meant for man.”) Because of that, I felt very, very strongly that we should not anthropomorphize the probe. Therefore, when the whales and the probe communicate, I felt we should make no attempt to “translate” their conversation for our human audience by using subtitles. To do so would demean the mystery . . . .

Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with me—including Harve Bennett. Because I felt so strongly on the subject, this led to friction between us, especially when Harve sent the studio heads a memo, suggesting some possible “dialog” between the probe and the whales . . . . It was only after a great deal of insistence that I convinced Paramount not to use the subtitles, and to let the mystery of the probe remain precisely that. [pages 265-266]
So in the end, not even the omniscient UT of the movie theater or television set could translate the whale-probe conversation. The idea that communication is more than just swapping out nouns and verbs is well handled, and adds depth to the story.

On the matter of untranslatable words in alien languages, Stanley Schmidt makes this observation in Aliens and Alien Societies:
A colleague recently argued on a convention panel that there are no untranslatable words-any meaning can be gotten across, even if it takes ten minutes of explanation. I disagreed, but we weren't really as far apart as we sounded. I basically agreed with him . . . when I doubted that many aliens are likely to be truly and hopelessly incomprehensible. But I don't think a ten-minute explanation of a word can really be considered a translation (and I can easily think of a examples that would require much more than ten minutes even to translate from academic English to street English, such as "Bessel function"). Let's just say that most languages will contain words that are not simply or easily translatable into some other languages-words that have no equivalent of comprable lenght and/or similar connotations. [page 177]
Schmidt is clearly more optimistic than Morrison about the possibility of meaningful communication with aliens (at least from a literary perspective), but his comments acknowledge the same basic idea that was explored in The Voyage Home - that you can't just slap an easy subtitle on everything an alien intelligence says.

Really, the closest anyone gets to understanding the whales or the probe is Spock, when he jumps in to 'swim with the kiddies.' Later, he tells Kirk, 'I believe I was successfully able to communicate our intentions.' I would put emphasis on the word "believe." Even with a mind-meld there was evidently only so much accuracy to their communication.

Maybe what they were really trying to say was: "So long, and thanks for all the krill . . . "

Next: Reflections on Star Trek: Insurrection. They Sure Don't Sound Like Son'a to Me.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Lost in Translation — Um . . . Disfluencies and Translation

Let us take a moment to revisit the idea of scanning brain activity to guide the translation process. I suggested that the UT may be able to detect thought patterns that correspond to certain categories of words - such as nouns, verbs, or specific kinds of nouns (people, animals, food, numbers). I recently came across an interesting book that indicates that the human brain actually does work that way.

The books is Um . . . Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, by Michael Erard. The book compiles historical, literary, anecdotal, and linguistic evidence that show the inner workings of the mistakes we make when speaking. In the process of studying these speech disfluencies the underlying structure of language and thought patterns begins to emerge. Erard explains:
For instance, when you accidentally swap one word for another, you always choose a word of the same part of speech, which is why I heard someone say, "That's the cake on the icing" (where two nouns swap) and not, "That's the on icing the cake" (where a noun swaps with a preposition). Linguists use this regularity as evidence that before a person utters something, the brain is constructing a sort of frame with empty slots for words, and words can fit only into the slots designed for them. If they don't fit, they're kicked out, or the speaker notices the impending error and stops the sentence to revise it. (pp. 64)
These patterns hold true across all languages that have been studied. The mistakes people make in speaking - saying the wrong word, the wrong sound, the wrong name, regressing and starting over, the placement of ums and uhs - always follow the rules of grammar of whatever language the person is speaking. The book even shows how studying these mistakes in children has allowed linguists to create models of how our ability to speak develops.

When you read the book you quickly start to see these patterns all around you. For example, my father comes from a family of seven children. My grandfather was famous for running through all of their names, the names of the neighbor kids, and the names of the family pets before coming up with the name he was actually trying to say. But while he might say Mark, Martha, John, David, or even Sparky instead of Mike, he would never say Gravity or Spatula by mistake. His brain was working with a slot for proper names, so it would only allow proper names.

This suggests that a device such as the UT would have some chance of working. Detecting the patterns manifest in these pre-spoken "slots" could be a very useful guide to translation.

Erard also discusses how verbal slips rarely occur more than a few words apart. This is because we do not speak word by word, nor do we speak sentence by sentence. We speak in chunks of words, and certain speech disfluencies consistently occur in the breaks between these chunks. Understanding this would help alleviate (although not complete solve) the difficulty of real-time translation (see the section “Don’t Wait for the Translation, Answer Me Now!”). Rather than having to wait for entire sentences, there might be detectable mental chunks that could be processed and translated before the rest of the sentence was even spoken.

So category based thought patterns might actually be . . . um . . . might actually be a real possibility.

You can learn more about Um at the official website:

NEXT: Lost in Translation — There Be Whales Here

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Lost in Translation—Men, Ferengi, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Lobes

Little Green Men” (DS9) gives us insight into the Ferengi Universal Translator, and in the process illustrates some of the logistical problems with any such device. According to this episode, Ferengi have their UTs implanted in their ears. This echoes the Babel Fish of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (There’s a slightly more serious, in-ear device in the Michael Crichton novel Timeline, although it didn’t make it into the movie.)

There’s a logic to the in-ear approach that we don’t have with other incarnations of the Star Trek UT. Consider the scene in “The 37s” (VOY). In that scene the revived Japanese man from 1937 marvels that he is hearing everyone speak Japanese. How? Because Janeway and Kes are wearing little gold pins? How is it that there is no cacophony of overlapping voices speaking English, Japanese, Ocampa, and whatever other languages may have been represented? This is a basic flaw in the presentation of the Universal Translator.

On the other hand, having the device out of the way, in your ear, would allow you to hear the translation you need without broadcasting it to everyone around you. This is the basic logic behind the Klingon walkie-talkies that Kirk and McCoy had in Star Trek:VI, or the earphones delegates use at the United Nations.

So the Ferengi really seem to be onto something here. But there’s one major difference between the Babel Fish and the Ferengi UT. The Babel Fish lets you understand other people, but it doesn’t let other people understand you. They would need a Babel Fish of their own. In theory, the Ferengi UT should let Quark, Rom, and Nog understand the hu-mons but not the other way around.

But that’s not what happens at all. The Ferengi UT somehow let’s everyone in the room understand everyone in the room. So we’re back to where we started. How do you make multiple overlapping voices make any sense to the listener? Either these little devices must have incredible acoustic control—able to project specific sound waves to specific locations around them—or they are somehow projecting the translation directly into the person’s mind, creating the illusion of hearing a single voice (and maybe even lip-synching while they're at it).

However, we quickly run into the same problem here that we did with scanning brain activity: if the UT we’re really that powerful it could be used in all manner of unscrupulous ways. If you can flawlessly project sounds and visual stimulation into someone’s mind you could . . . fill in the blank with whatever devious plan you can think of.

So the basic problem remains unaddressed. Once we overcome the challenges of creating a device that can translate, we have to find a way to provide each listener with the translation they need. Ship to ship communication is one thing, since you’re already listening though a communication channel that could be modified. But for face to face communication, no solution has been offered.

Next: Lost in Translation - Um . . . Disfluencies and Translation

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lost in Translation—"The Universal Translator Would Be Recognized"

"We must respond personally. The Universal Translator would be recognized." - Pavel Chekov

There is no doubt that this scene is mostly played for laughs, and seeing Starfleet officers frantically searching through books and speaking Klingon badly is an entertaining sight. But it's problematic if you think it through. At the same time, Chekov's statement highlights a significant issue for the Universal Translator.

First, some of what makes this scene difficult to accept. To start with - and this is really just nitpicking - why does Chekov get the disembodied voice over about the UT? Wouldn't that be Uhura's line?

Would a Starfleet vessel really have a library of books about the Klingon language? Would Uhura really speak Klingon like a gringo? Hoshi Sato was probably spinning in her grave.The Klingon translators at Kirk and McCoy's trial speak better English than she speaks Klingon. (Supposedly Nichelle Nichols objected to the scene because she believed Uhura would have been able to speak better Klingon.)

So there are some oddities here we just have to be willing to accept for the sake of the gag, but we have to ask, how could this little ruse have been at all convincing? If the Universal Translator would be recognized, what about Uhura's poorly spoken Klingon? Bernd Schneider's article "Alien Monocultures in Star Trek" offers an intriguing possibility. It suggests that not all Klingons necessarily share the same native language and continues: "Maybe this was even the reason why Uhura's awkward attempt to speak Klingon in 'Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country' did not raise any suspicion."

In any event, what does Chekov's statement mean? In what sense would the Universal Translator be recognizable? Evidently he wasn't talking about not replying with proper pronunciation and grammar, since they didn't do that anyways. And he evidently wasn't worried about the delay in translation, since their human efforts to translate certainly took longer than the UT would have taken. So it must primarily have been a concern over the quality of the synthesized voice.

We might assume that the quality of the UT's voice would improve over time, as the technology improves in general and as it became more familiar with a given language. The question becomes, would a 23rd century UT really have such trouble with Klingon when there had already been extensive contact between these two races? By this time there were individual Klingons that were fluent in English. They had an ambassador that could address the Federation Council and the Federation President. They sent a whole group of delegates to the Khitomer peace conference.

But the problem of the Universal Translator being recognizable over an audio channel only multiplies with face to face communication. The obstacles we have identified so far would only compound: Beyond the basic challenge of providing an accurate and nuanced translation and dealing with a potential artificial sounding voice, there would necessarily be a delay and lip-syncing issues.

'The Universal Translator would be recognized' indeed.

So how is that Starfleet officers - even of Archer's time - could seamlessly intermingle with alien populations and not be picked out as impostors?

Even if we accept the seemingly magical ability of the UT to learn alien languages instantly and basically perfectly, such a device would always be recognizable while in use. Storytelling convention allows us to gloss over this for the most part. We don't have to be subjected to the delays, the strange sounding voices, the lip-syncing issues every time. But then by slight-of-hand we slip from storytelling convention to simply ignoring these issues altogether.

Well, maybe the Ferengi have a solution . . .

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

2000 Flushes: A Space Odyssey

Maybe you've already seen this before. It's the smallest of silly footnotes to my ongoing discussion of the Universal Translator, but I just came across this post about the physical prop used for the UT on Enterprise ("Terra Prime"). Turns out they used a "mineral magnet toilet cleaner."

Hey Hoshi, Translate This!
(Have Phaser, Will Travel)