Universal Translators – A Relic In SFF?

Dealing with aliens and language

My favourite way this was handled is also the most famous. So famous you are probably already thinking about it.

The Babel Fish:

But Douglas was doing more than producing an achingly funny literary device. He was dealing with the same issue lots of writers face. How can they have Aliens but still have them talk in a way that their readers can relate to.

Some early writers didn’t bother, they made up gobbledygook that the reader had to wade through. I read some of this. It never worked. Luckily that phase didn’t last long, perhaps editors got sick of it. Then there was psychic communication. Writers literally had their aliens not talking but telepathically communicating (E.E Doc Smith and his Lensemen are an early example of this). It sort of worked, but not really, only the privileged few could communicate directly.

You could argue that this is how the babel fish works, because it is telepathic. But it isn’t the same, because anyone could have one, it was a universal device, available to the common hitch-hiker. 

Lenses were for the elite. But that was E.E.’s viewpoint, you could see in the rest of his writing. Only special people got to do special things, not the general public. It was a different time. I liked the books when I read them as a child, but they haven’t aged well.

Harry Harrison, to use a more recent example (god I’m showing my age, but I love all of his work), used mind tapes to imprint languages into the brain, so the subject could both speak and understand the local lingo. Not perfect solution, but reasonable, it works in his universes, and I do so love the universes he created.

In his completely brilliant West of Eden Trilogy*, which if you haven’t read you simply must, he doesn’t use translators at all, but uses the process of the protagonist having to learn dinosaur language as a way to advance the plot. It’s astonishingly well done. So well in fact I didn’t realise he was using it that way till a while after I’d read the book and had to re-read it to fully appreciate it.

That was the first, and I think, only time I’ve it used that way.

*West of Eden is a story where the asteroid never wiped out the dinosaurs and humans are consigned to corners of the world where intelligent dinosaurs haven’t reached. I recommend it.

Star Trek has the Universal Translator, although it seems to be employed less and less for some familiar species. They love having their Klingon. And using the Klingon language for dramatic effect makes sense. It works really well, at least in the early movies. Those are the only ones I like, and the Klingon language is integral to many of the stories.

Star Treks writers knew when to make use of it and when to ignore it. You can see this most easily in Voyager. The crew get thrown into situations where they cannot possibly have access to one, yet they can talk to the locals. Why? Because it works thematically.

Doing otherwise would ruin the story.

When has the concept of a Universal translator itself been used as a prop? Look at Galaxy Quest. 

There’s a great example ‘Doesn’t she talk? – Her translator is broken’, great line. Showing the viewer that a translation system is being used, then never bothering with it again, and getting a laugh from it. That’s very Adamsian. He used his translation system as a mechanism for humour them largely ignored it. Except in his case it became such a big thing he used it again several times. Sometimes usefully (non existence of god proving), sometimes incidentally, never pointlessly.

So what’s my point. Let’s look at the fundamental problem science fiction writers face. No-one on a different world can possibly speak the same language. It simply isn’t a thing.

It isn’t even a thing in different areas of our planet, or different places in the same country sometimes. No, when it comes to other worlds we won’t be likely share anything but mathematical constants, and we’ll have different ways of referring to those. So how can you have a multi world drama in this case?

Surely you need some kind of elaborate translation system that can handle the inter species communication?

I thought that, but look at the above examples, what do they have in common. They mostly introduce a system, then proceed to ignore it. This is even true in Lensmen for the most part. The characters communicate as they would if they were native speakers of the same language. 

If you read early science fiction where authors tried to make up alien languages they don’t work, or don’t work now if they ever did. It separates the reader from the action. This is a bad plan.

The only person I know who made it work is Tolkien. But let’s be honest, he didn’t just write some books, he created an entire world, complete with history, races, languages and legends, then wrote some books set in it. We can’t really compare universal translators to that, can we. 

My personal thoughts are:

 If the reader isn’t supposed to understand something the first time they see it, don’t make them read it. If it is, put it in plain language.

Get rid of the translator mcguffin, if all you’re going to do is introduce it then ignore it, you don’t need it.

Readers are so used to aliens talking in a way the can understand now there’s simply no reason to use one now. Some people might mutter. But I don’t imagine many will. I’ve been reading SFF for years, and so many books have just left out the translator completely without hurting the story one bit.

It’s a holdover from a previous age of SFF we simply don’t need any more.

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