Universally Translating in Space

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like – and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”

The anatomy of a Babel fish

In other words, the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy translates the subconscious of the speaker into language the listener understands. It’s just one example of a universal translator in science fiction, where they’re often used by writers to get around the languages and dialect part of world building, but it’s personally one of my favorites. Unlike a mysterious box, device, or computer program, such as those used in Star Trek or Men in Black, which translates from speech to speech, the Babel fish doesn’t try to be realistic by today’s standards and thereby avoids many of the problems that make real time translators so difficult, if not impossible.

It didn’t take long after computers came into existence that researchers began trying to use them for machine translation. “This will be easy!”, they thought, conceptualizing simple word to word translation systems, and not realizing the maze of a problem they were getting themselves into. We have made a lot of progress in the decades since then, and some machine translators, such as google’s, can produce some passable translations between certain languages. (To the students reading this, they still won’t trick your language teacher, so don’t try.) Even so, there is a long way to go between where we are and universal translators, especially real time ones. Besides the typical major problems in MT such as idioms, word order, sparsity of data, and dealing with morphology in general, real time translators will have to process information they don’t have yet. Differences in sentence structure and word order between languages mean that a delay in speech to speech translation is inevitable, which makes realistic translators in movies/tv feel a bit too clunky.

This is why I’m such a fan of the Babel fish, and the Tardis’ translation matrix from Doctor Who for that matter, which also uses a type of telepathic field. They get around a lot of the issues we run into in MT simply by taking advantage of worldbuilding. Does it take some suspension of disbelief to accept a telepathic fish you stick in your ear which excretes translated speech? Sure, but it fits right in with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s universe and style, and instead of being just close enough to the truth to be irritating, it’s just crazy enough to think, hey, that just might work!

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