This blog post was written by Richard Brooks. He’s a firm believer that life imitates art, CEO of the UK-based LSP K International, a company specialising in translation services for the legal industry and director of the Association of Language Companies.
Translation Machines in Sci-fi
In science fiction, translation of the potentially infinite number of languages spoken by alien species presents a dilemma. How to deal with communication between interplanetary species without resorting to contrivance, or spending the first twenty minutes of each episode’s dialogue clumsily showing characters learning one another’s diphthongs?
The notion of a ‘universal translator’ emanated from Murray Leinster’s novella First Contact, published in 1945 (and clearly that isn’t the only debt Gene Roddenberry owes to Leinster). It’s a greatly helpful – borderline miraculous, in fact – convention of sci-fi: a technological solution to the language barrier, leaving more time for the actual narrative to unfold in one language, typically English.
With the incredible advancements in technology we’re witnessing at the moment such as Microsoft’s pilots of a Skype Translator and the industry leading work KantanMT is achieving in this area, are we seeing the beginnings of live translation – well ahead of Star Trek’s 22nd century deadline? In the meantime, let’s take a look at five of sci-fi’s finest translation machines, which beat anything real-life technology can offer – for now.
1. Star Trek: Universal Translator
An important part of Star Trek’s near-utopian vision of the future is the Universal Translator. Translating any language into another even while a person is speaking, this exceptionally handy tool means Starfleet craft in any quadrant of the galaxy can speak to new life and new civilizations without confusion.
Voiced by Star Trek creator Roddenberry’s widow Majel Barrett until her death in 2008, the development of a universal translator was, in the Trek universe, a portent of Earth’s cultures achieving universal peace. It’s difficult to imagine Google Translate having the same impact.
This convenient concept has been often copied, and occasionally parodied: in Futurama, everyone in the universe speaks English, rendering Professor Farnworth’s one successful invention – a translation device – useless, as it merely translates English into the dead language, French!
2. The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: the Babel Fish
Some sci-fi plays with the concept in less serious ways. In Douglas Adams’ H2G2, to help Arthur Dent deal in some small way with anything that goes on around him, inserted into his ear is a Babel Fish, memorably described by the Guide as “small, yellow, leechlike and probably the oddest thing in the universe.”
The science (such as it is) behind the Babel Fish is that it can absorb the frequencies of outside speakers, and a translation is secreted by the fish into the hearer’s brain via his or her ear canal. In a witty reversal of Star Trek’s idealistic Federation, Adams reveals that, by allowing everyone to understand one another, the Babel Fish has actually caused more war than anything else in the universe.
3. Farscape: Translator microbes
In science fiction, as in reality, it is the individual idiosyncrasies of languages which are trickiest to master. When people in the UK from a hundred miles apart may speak different languages, not to mention a range of different dialects and accents, can auditory translation really be so smooth?
One series to acknowledge this is Farscape, where astronaut John Crichton is injected with bacteria-sized ‘translator microbes’, which are injected into – and colonise – his brain. The microbes work to make their host understand any spoken information in any language – except idioms are translated literally. This leads to a great deal of confusion for John, and opportunities for humour for the audience (all jokes are language, after all) – and also perhaps renders these microbes a more realistically-limited translator technology.
4. Doctor Who: The TARDIS’ Translation Circuit
As well as being telepathically linked with the Doctor, and granting the ability to travel to any time or place in history and the future, the TARDIS’ telepathic field is used to automatically translate what the Doctor and any companions hear or read into a language which they can understand.
While wonderfully convenient, the mind-meld involved does mean that the translation circuits won’t actually work when the Doctor is unconscious – not an outright impossibility. Also, because translations are time specific, ancient civilization won’t understand neologisms – and, neatly, the Romans have never heard the word ‘volcano’ – because they’ve not lived to see an eruption.
5. Star Wars: C-3PO
Luke Skywalker is the ultimate sci-fi everyman: he is every bit as much in need of a guide to the universe he finds himself in as the viewing audience are. Reinforcing this are his guides, C-3PO and R2D2, who Luke needs with him – despite their obvious drawbacks as travelling companions – because C-3PO is programmed with millions of languages, everything from Ewok to R2’s bleeps and whistles.
When the franchise returns with The Force Awakens later this year (which most fans will rightly consider the fourth, rather than seventh, Star Wars movie), C-3PO’s translation abilities are sure to make him at least partially useful to have around.
The KantanMT team say a big Thank You to Richard for a very savvy post on translation machines in science fiction.
Richard (@RichardMBrooks) will join Tony O’Dowd, (@TonyODowd1) KantanMT Founder and Chief Architect alongside other Language industry heavyweights at the ATC Annual Conference in the Old Trafford Stadium on 24th and 25th September 2015. Register here to attend the conference.
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