Science fiction is often applauded for its ability to predict future technologies. These tools might be for the better (the smart watches shown on The Jetsons) or for the worse (the obscene surveillance state shown in Nineteen Eighty-Four). But sci-fi doesn’t just predict the future; it can create it, too. The imaginations of Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin and countless other writers have inspired scientists to create the tech-centric world we live in. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most sought-after linguistic technology was first thought of in First Contact, a 1945 novella by Murray Leinster. In the story, creatures from around the universe are able to communicate using what’s called a universal translator.
The concept of the universal translator is simple enough: it’s a device that can translate between any two languages, ideally as fast as possible. In execution, though, it’s not simple at all. The problem of human language is that it’s so complex that even our best artificial intelligence hasn’t mastered it. But as you can imagine, almost every tech company in the world is attempting to crack it, and each year brings incredible developments.
If you go from the real world to sci-fi, though, there are universal translators everywhere. Why? Well, frankly, it solves a lot of story 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 rounded up 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 the long-running British TV show 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 speak 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 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 — no swearing in space, apparently — 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 trilogy in five parts,” which might give you a hint that the whole thing is meant to be slightly ridiculous. So it only makes sense that their universal translator is the silliest of them all. It’s called a Babel fish, and it’s 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 the closest to a “real” gadget so far on this list. There’s no telepathy or fish involved. The UT is the sci-fi standard for translation technology, and any article about the concept of a universal translator is bound to reference it. In execution, 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. It’s essentially a really advanced Google Translate that takes in language information and figures out the best way to translate it. There are some inconsistencies in how it works, but that’s bound to happen with a franchise that’s been rebooted so many times.
In the above clip, Hoshi Sato explains how the UT operates, and says it was invented in the 22nd century (so the clock is ticking for us). In addition to the UT’s ability to translate any Earth language, Hoshi used the UT to invent the linguacode, which can be used to communicate with any species in existence. The linguacode ventures a bit more into the realm of impossibility, because it’s unlikely it’ll ever be that easy to crack alien languages.
In the Star Trek universe, the invention of the UT broke down all of Earth’s language barriers and created planet-wide 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. One of the most recent iterations of Star Trek — the TV show Star Trek: Discovery — hired official Klingon translator Robyn Stewart to create dialogue for the alien species, which is then translated on-screen. 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 tends to show 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 in fact 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
Compared to the sci-fi we’ve covered so far, reality is lagging. There isn’t any tool that will immediately and seamlessly translate from one language to another. But the idea of a universal translator is looking more and more possible with every passing year.
While many companies are vying for linguistic supremacy, Google takes the blue ribbon for now (Microsoft isn’t too far behind with its Skype Translator). 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 2017, and it is now a feature in many Google products.
There are two main flaws to the Pixel Buds translations: they’re not quite quick enough to count as “instant” translation, and they only work for a limited number of languages. With each new update, though, they’re improving. They’ve gone from 12 to 40 supported languages in the past three years, and each iteration is faster than the last. Competing earbuds are even working on allowing “interruptions,” meaning two people can talk over each other but the device will still be able to translate both people at the same time.
Google Translate isn’t 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 2020, you can communicate in some capacity with almost anyone on the internet. No, it’s not perfect. No, not every language is represented. But still, it’s a technology that for years ago was purely the stuff of sci-fi. Basically, we’re living in the future.