Gallifreyan Doesn’t Translate: Science-Fictional “Universal Translators”

How about something a little lighter this week? A quick video review of universal translation/interpreting devices in science fiction. After all, if you’re going to encounter aliens, you have to be able to talk to them! First, the TV episode that inspired the title: Doctor Who, Episode 6.07, “A Good Man Goes to War.”

According to Wikipedia, the first “universal translator” in science fiction appeared in the 1945 novel First Contact

Doctor Who, as one of the longest-running series on television, refers to the “Tardis Translation Matrix” fairly often. Here is a more thorough analysis of the series’ explanation for how its characters can understand the locals anywhere in time and space:

Of course, the concept is hardly unique to Doctor Who. In fact, the bane of translators’ and interpreters’ existence fifteen years ago, the website Babel Fish, takes its name from the Babel fish species in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (video below is a BBC reading of it):

Both the Doctor Who “TARDIS Translation Matrix” and the THHGTTG “Babel fish” are predated, of course, by universal translation in Season 2 of Star Trek:

And, of course, even space-age technology is not without its problems:

So, what do you think? Do you have other favorite fictional “universal translators”? Can you imagine a way in which one could really work?

Have you tried any of the available apps? I can tell you that my father asked me to teach him how to say “Please vacuum the ___ room” [he’s the director of an event space] because the universal translation app he downloaded kept using the word vacío, a vacuum in the way space is a vacuum, instead of aspiradora , the thing that cleans the floors. So his crew thought they were supposed to empty the room, not sweep the carpet. So it seems that for now, at least, a true voice-to-voice app is definitely still in the realm of science fiction!

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