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