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4 Sci-Fi Universal Translators And 1 Possibly Real One

Science fiction reveals a lot about how we imagine the future of communication, especially in a time when the future seems to be happening right now.

Photo: LucasFilm

There are a few devices that, once invented, will change humanity as we know it. Examples might include a machine to wire your brain into a computer, a spaceship that doesn’t cost billions of dollars to run and a small gadget that allows us to access almost all of human knowledge on the go — oh wait, we have that last one. In the language world, the holy grail scientists have been striving toward is a universal translator.

The concept of the universal translator is simple enough; it’s just a device that can translate one language into any other. As you can imagine, every tech company in the world is attempting to crack it, and each year there are impressive advancements.

Where you can find universal translators most abundantly is in sci-fi. Why? Well, frankly, it solves a lot of logistical problems. Sure, the characters could spend decades mastering alien languages, but why not just have a machine that does that all for them? As we wait for a device that will break down all language barriers forever, we decided to round up some of our favorite fictional translation devices. We also threw in one of the most recent attempts at a real universal translator.

Tardis Translation Circuit — Doctor Who

In Doctor Who, the Tardis is a machine able to go anywhere throughout time and space, so sure, why not throw a translation device in there? The titular Doctor, being a 2,000-year-old alien, already speaks millions of languages, of course, but he does need translation services to offer his traveling companions. The Tardis employs a telepathic field that automatically translates both text and speech for people. The Tardis Translation Circuit is particularly complicated because it’s connected to the Doctor himself (or, thanks to Jodie Whittaker, herself). This means that the Doctor’s language abilities control who gets access to it, and also apparently allows him to briefly talk in other languages, like with the 10th Doctor’s near-constant yelling of the French Allons-y! ("Let’s go!"). That’s also why in the scene above, the Tardis’ translation doesn’t work until the Doctor comes out of what was essentially a coma.

Confused yet? Doctor Who doesn’t mind being very vague about how its technology works (it describes the space-time continuum as a "big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff"), so asking for a realistic explanation is pretty futile. The show takes the easier route by just ignoring any inconsistencies in the way the translation circuit works. Additional fun fact: In the Doctor Who book Only Human, it’s revealed that the Tardis has a censorship feature, which helps explain why the show can keep its PG rating.

Babel Fish — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a comedic series, so it only makes sense that their universal translator is the most ridiculous. It is the Babel fish, a creature that naturally evolved so that when you stick it in your ear, it eats your brain waves and excretes thought, translating any language in the universe for you. To help distract from the extraordinary implausibility of such a fish, the book launches into an explanation as to why the Babel fish disproves God’s existence.

The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and vanishes in a puff of logic.

Universal Translator — Star Trek

Star Trek’s universal translator, or UT, is perhaps the closest to a “real” gadget so far on this list. There is no telepathy or fish involved. The UT is the sci-fi standard for translation technology, and it’s referenced in almost every article about new multilingual devices. Yes, it’s still more of a plot device than a technological one, but the creators of Star Trek have put at least a little effort into explaining how translation works. The show is not entirely consistent in how the UT operates, but for the most part, it’s basically a really advanced Google Translate that takes in language information and figures out the best way to translate it.

In the above clip, Hoshi Sato explains the UT, which was invented in the 22nd century. Hoshi also used the UT to invent the linguacode, which can apparently be used to communicate with any species in existence, and it allowed instant translation of all Earth languages. Apparently, the breaking down of all language barriers created world peace and cooperation. It will probably take more than translation to do that in real life.

We would be remiss not to mention Star Trek’s biggest contribution to language: Klingon. The Klingons are skeptical of the UT and prefer speaking in their own language, allowing many opportunities to hear Klingon throughout the various shows and movies. The language itself was developed into a full language, which is pretty much a sci-fi nerd prerequisite at this point. The newest iteration of Star Trek, the TV show Star Trek: Discovery, has official Klingon translator Robyn Stewart on staff to create dialogue, which is then translated on-screen. Because even in the future, there’s no escape from subtitles.

C-3PO — Star Wars

In Star Wars, despite the existence of laser swords, spaceships and massive, planet-shaped weapons (OK, fine, moon-shaped), everyone is still forced to use language interpreters. Granted, C-3PO is a super-advanced robot that speaks six million languages, but even so, it seems pretty inconvenient to have to drag him with you every time you need a mediator. C-3PO shows a lot of flaws in droid design. For example, why would you build a two-legged robot? Sure, humans pull it off, but when C-3PO is walking around, he looks like a baby taking its first steps. Plus, C-3PO is scared of everything and is kind of irritating (which is why R2-D2 has always been the more popular of the duo). There’s a reason this golden boy is always falling over and getting his limbs pulled off.

My overall point here is that when technology advances, I have to imagine we’ll be able to make more efficient translation devices. Nothing against C-3PO, but there’s just gotta be a better way to talk to Ewoks.

Pixel Buds — Google

Yes, you guessed it, this is the real deal. Of all the companies attempting to make a universal translator, Google has made perhaps the most progress. Microsoft isn’t too far behind with its Skype Translator, but Google still takes the blue ribbon for now. The release of Google Pixel Buds, which, as seen in the clip above, have the ability to automatically translate speech, got the tech world very excited in October. The translations aren’t flawless, though. Pixel Buds only really work with simple sentences, and just a few sentences at a time. In addition, only 12 languages are currently supported. They’re also not able to facilitate very smooth conversation, because you have to say something, and then the device has to say it aloud, slowing everything down. You’re not going to be able to easily flirt with someone in another language using these.

Pixel Buds are definitely not taking the place of real human multilingualism — yet. There are a lot of flaws that come up. But instead of just pointing out all of those, we can look at the positives. A few decades ago, instant translation seemed nearly impossible. In 2017, you can communicate in some capacity with almost anyone on the internet. Yes, it’s not perfect. Yes, not every language is represented. But still, it’s pretty cool. We’re living in the future!

Universal translation devices will never take the place of genuine human connection.

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