In science fiction, whenever two characters from different planets or different alien races have to interact with each other, they almost always speak the same language or have some sort of universal translator that magically makes them able to communicate with minimal misunderstandings. This is especially common in Star Trek, though it happens in just about every franchise involving a far-future space opera setting of some kind.
I’ve got to be honest, I think this is a cheap plot device that almost always weakens the story. As a writer, it’s tempting to have something like this so you don’t have to deal with any pesky language barriers, but when you do this, you remove a major potential source of conflict, thus violating the rule of drama. Also, you make your fictional universe feel a little less grand, your aliens a little less alien. After all, if everyone can perfectly understand each other, then there must not be a huge difference between Earth and the far side of the galaxy.
There are some times when having a universal translator allows you to broaden the story and focus on other conflicts. For example, if some sort of interstellar legislation is under review in the grand galactic council, you can’t spend all your time focusing on basic communication difficulties.
However, if this is the case, then you can usually overcome the language barrier through other means–a galactic lingua franca, for example, or translation tools that may or may not misfire on occasion (much like Google Translate). Of course, if you’re writing a comedy like Galaxy Quest (or parts of Star Control II), then falling back on a universal translator is forgivable. But if you’re going for believability and a sense of wonder, this trope isn’t going to do you any favors.
While linguists and technologists have been working on translation programs for some time (and admittedly making some significant breakthroughs), I’m extremely skeptical that we will ever develop a perfect universal translator in real life. If we do, I expect we will have to develop a sentient AI as a prerequisite, since the nuances of language are so inseparable from the things that make us human.
Here’s how translation services like Google Translate work:
- They amass an enormous database of language material by scanning websites, newspapers, and other documents.
- They analyze this database to look at word combinations and frequencies, observing the likelihood that any one word will appear in combination with any others.
- They compare these combinations and frequencies with those in other language databases to match words and phrases.
This data crunch method of translation works fairly well for simple words and phrases, but it falls apart in the more complex grammatical structures. I see this any time I try to use Google Translate with an Arabic source. Arabic is an extremely eloquent language, with all sorts of structures that simply don’t work in English. One mistranslated word can completely change the meaning of the entire text, and even when it works, the technically correct English translation sounds as if it’s full of errors.
The methodology also falls apart for languages that are too small to have much of an electronic database. The Georgian language is a good example of this. It’s spoken by only about 4.5 million people worldwide, most of them in the country of Georgia, which is predominantly rural. Internet access for most of the population is very limited, and most Georgians who do communicate online tend to use the Roman or Cyrillic alphabets more often than their own. As a result, Google Translate for Georgian is utterly useless–seriously, you’re better off just sounding out the letters and guessing at the meaning. There are some other sites like translate.ge that try to fill the gap, but they seem to rely on actual lexicons, not databases and algorithms.
All of this is between entirely human languages that developed in parallel on the same planet–indeed, languages between human cultures that have traded and shared linguistic influences for thousands of years. What happens when we encounter an alien race whose biology makes it impossible for them to make human-sounding noises? Or an alien race that communicates through smell or electromagnetic impulses instead of sound? What happens when humanity is spread out across hundreds of star systems, each of which periodically becomes isolated from the others for hundreds or even thousands of years? When our definition of human is stretched so thin that we would not even recognize our far-future descendents as anything but alien?
There is so much wasted potential whenever a science fiction story falls back on a universal translator. Case in point, compare Halo I, II, and III with Halo: Reach. In the first three games, the Master Chief’s universal translator enables him to hear exactly what the enemy Covenant troops are saying. This is great fun when you’re chasing down panicked grunts, but it tends to get old after a while. In Halo: Reach, however, the human forces haven’t yet developed a universal translator, so everything the Covenant say is in their original language. All of a sudden, the game went from a hilarious joyride to a serious war against aliens that felt truly alien. That one little change did wonders to the tone and feel of the entire game.
Needless to say, you won’t find a universal translator in any of my books. In Star Wanderers, the language barrier is the heart and soul of the story–it’s a science fiction romance between two characters from radically different worlds who don’t speak the same language, and yet overcome that to develop a strong and healthy relationship. In Sholpan and Bringing Stella Home, Stella knows a language that is fairly similar to the one spoken by the Hameji, but there are still words and phrases that elude her. This detail is critical because it impedes her ability to understand and adapt to the Hameji culture, leading to some major conflicts later in the book.
As someone who’s lived for significant periods of time in Europe and Asia and learned languages very different from English, I can say that the language barrier is not something that we as writers should avoid, but something that we should embrace. There are so many interesting stories that can be told when two characters don’t speak the same language. Please, don’t be lazy and write that out of the story through a cheap plot device! Let your aliens be truly alien, and your worlds and cultures so fantastic that we can’t help but feel hopelessly lost in them. More »