Universal translator, sort of

One of the central utopian tenets of Star Trek is the development of a universal translator. A technology that instantly and seamlessly translates between spoken languages is clearly good for peace and understanding between peoples.

Last night I attended a dinner between people who did not share a common language, but who were highly motivated to communicate with one another. Everyone took out their smartphones and started typing and speaking into them, attempting to create sentences which conveyed their intended meaning.

The process was not smooth. There are subtleties of meaning and emotional nuance which are well beyond a machine’s ability to understand or express.

While observing this process, part of my mind was imagining a “realistic Star Trek”, where universal translation does not go smoothly, and opportunities for misunderstanding lurk around every corner.

I realize that would not satisfy Star Trek’s prime directive to portray a utopian future. But it sure would lead to some interesting dramatic situations.

One thought on “Universal translator, sort of”

  1. I’m not a thoroughgoing Star Trek fan, one could perhaps find a better example, but this immediately called to mind the Next Generation episode “Darmok”. It’s a little hard to interpret what’s supposed to be happening, but it seems like there’s a case where the universal translator doesn’t have enough context so it falls back to a word-for-word translation, and heroic efforts are made to communicate anyway. It makes for great quotes among those who share the reference.

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