Communication: How Universal Translators Will Work

A brief discussion of the Universal Translator, how close we are and what we are not going to get, and how it will work.

We've all seen television shows or read books where the hero has no trouble talking with the aliens. No matter how they speak, or what language they use, his "Universal Translator" handles it with ease. But is this science fiction writer's stock-in-trade something that could be real? After all, at one time the airplane, the computer, and the space station were all fiction. Is the time coming when you will be able to understand and be understood by anyone?

In the real world, there are no Universal Translators, yet. But the smallest simplest precursor to the Universal Translator does exist. There are several sites on the net that provide machine translation of text or web sites. Just use your favorite search engine to look for translation services and you'll probably find several. As computer power increases and storage media get smaller and cheaper, it will be possible to translate spoken language instead of just written language. There are projects in place to do just that. The hardware to do that doesn't exist yet, but it's coming soon.

Of course, the fictional hero's Universal Translator in those SF epics isn't limited to languages already known. It can translate any language from any intelligent being. That's going to be a little harder.



In fiction, there have been numerous Universal Translators, from the Babelfish in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to Start Trek's Universal Translator to Farscape's Translator Bacteria. Many of these rely on telepathy. That is, the ability to read the mind of the other speaker. With that method, the Universal Translator could make any two beings communicate.

The Star Trek style translator uses "universal constants" to decipher a new language. The only problem there is that there are no universal constants. That's no problem in fiction, but in real life that's a showstopper.

In the future, we can almost guarantee a limited Universal Translator. In fact, there are companies working on it right now. In the near future you will be able to buy a German-to-English or Spanish-to-English translator. It only takes a little faster processor than is currently available. While that will be a boon to travelers, it's not really a UNIVERSAL translator.

That device is a little further down the road. A machine that can translate any language to any other language AND determine which language is being spoken is a lot more complex. Don't expect that version of the Universal Translator for several years after the Spanish-to-English machine.

When it does show up, it will probably look a lot like an old fashioned hearing aid. You'll carry the "╦ťbrain' in a pocket, strapped to your arm or fastened to your belt. You'll have an ear bud in your ear and it will just translate anything it hears into your native language. The benefits to world travelers are obvious. But even stay-at-home types will find it convenient to be able to talk to non-English speaking people. And of course, anyone in a Customer Service position will find it handy to understand any language that shows up.

After the Universal Translator is released we'll soon see a version that will fit entirely in your ear.

After that, we'll no doubt see designer colors and styles show up. Perhaps we'll see dignitaries wearing lapel pins that translate everything around them. Or models wearing gold necklaces that murmur in their ears. But they will all have the same limitation: the language must be programmed in before it can be used.

But the Universal Translator that lets you communicate with anything and everything, even if it has never heard that language before, is and probably always will remain in the realm of fiction.

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