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Universal Translator

Entry updated 4 July 2017. Tagged: Theme.

Automated language translation is a highly convenient plot device for sf stories, facilitating Communication with Aliens without miring the action in realistic examination of Linguistic issues. An early example is the Language Rectifier facility of the Telephot videophone in Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; exp as fixup 1925; rev 1950), which is shown providing instant idiomatic translation between English and French, and can be set to other known languages by simply turning a control knob. Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (May 1945 Astounding) features a relatively crude "mechanical translator" constructed hastily with alien cooperation after the titular First Contact. A universal translation Computer is central to the multi-species space hospital's operation in James White's Sector General series, whose first story appeared in 1957; in Star Surgeon (September 1961, January-March 1962 New Worlds as "Resident Physician" and "Field Hospital"; fixup 1963), this computer is taken out by a missile strike with near-catastrophic effects. White seems to have established the convention that the translation computer need only listen long enough to alien speeches, recordings or transmissions to acquire a grasp of the language. A similar universal translator is deployed in Star Trek from the original 1966-1969 series: there is an interesting twist in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok" (30 September 1991), where a humanoid race's words translate perfectly but the meaning invariably depends on historical-metaphorical allusions which require a second layer of decipherment. In Doctor Who, the TARDIS proves to include a built-in translation facility. The joke of Douglas Adams's babel fish in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979; rev vt The Illustrated Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy 1994) – stick it in your ear for instant translation – is that such an improbably convenient plot device implies the existence of God, or at least of a helpful and all-powerful Author.

Mechanical translation also features in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Hunters of the Red Moon (1973), which falls between two stools by insisting that translations are painfully literal but allowing the punning line "we must hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately" to be effortlessly rendered into alien speech and understood; in Larry Niven's Known Space sequence, whose story "There is a Tide" (July 1968 Galaxy) features the trope of rapid machine comprehension on exposure to alien speech, with still unknown terms coming through as "screee"; in Piers Anthony's Prostho Plus (stories November 1967-October 1970 If and November 1967 Analog; fixup 1971), whose Earthman hero plugs such vocabulary gaps with irreverent phrases of his own, so that (for example) any alien dignitary is rendered as "high muck-a-muck" (see also Swearing); and in Farscape (1999-2003, 2005), which parallels the babel fish with "translator microbes" injected to provide temporary comprehension of alien language. There are many further examples.

A popular sf alternative to translation devices is rapid acquisition of a language via Hypnosis, knowledge pills or direct brain upload: see Education in SF. [DRL]

see also: Information Theory.

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