I’ve always had the need to talk about translation and Star Trek, but my Trekkie friends are not translators and my classmates are not Trekkies. Finally I have been given this opportunity to bore you on this fascinating subject of the Universal Translator.
I majored in translation, but I couldn’t find a full time job, so I work as a bilingual legal secretary and I supplement my income with interpretation assignments in schools, hospitals, and courts.
My first and most important thought about Star Trek and the Universal Translator is how on Earth writers so inventive, wonderfully creative, so research oriented and, I don’t want to say it, but nerdy. Second, they made a mistake and misnamed such a wonderful piece of technology! There are two distinct disciplines: translation occurs with written texts, and interpretation, which is for oral texts, such as conversations, speeches, and dialogues, just like we see in interactions among aliens and the crew of the Enterprise. Hence, this technology should be called the Universal Interpreter or UI for short.
The UI in Star Trek is more than just plot device – it is a bridge to facilitate communication, to ensure peace among all human races and other extraterrestrial beings. To me, the UI brings language and humanities to a protagonistic role, giving me hope for a better future.
Often I feel humanities are considered less important to society at large. When I was a student, two things became clear to me: First, interpretation students were like divas seeking attention (jk); Secondly, that even though we shared the same building with other majors, the MBAs and engineering students got all the resources and state of the art infrastructure; somehow studying humanities meant we would be poorer and there was no point to invest in us language students.
I see a similar pattern with how the Klingons approach language in their society, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Uhura was able to trick the Klingons by searching words in paper dictionaries. How did the Klingon sentinel not notice the broken grammar, nor her thick accent? I don’t think he didn’t care for the safety of the Empire, but that he didn’t study languages, because it might not be important for Klingons.
In this movie (my favorite), we are presented with this clunky, unsophisticated version of the Klingon UI, it is not surprising to find a warmongering society like the Klingons advancing only in fields of domination and conquest, while having neglected all efforts to advance in diplomacy. So maybe we, naive students of language, were mistakenly attending a Klingon academy. It is important to invest in humanities, so the art of communicating peace is not alien to us.
Later in my life when I was a court interpreter, I lived versions of the trial in Qo’noS, I witnessed the experience of being in an alien courtroom, hearing charges in another language, the look on the accused when not understanding the prosecutor. I was the voice of the judge, I was a human Universal Interpreter interpreting sentences to Rura Penthe. Because of that job, my favorite scene is the questioning by General Chang, there is something about his rhythm, the passionate cadence of each word and the delivery of that famous line inspired by Adlai Stevenson during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis:
GENERAL CHANG: “Indeed. The record shows that Captain Kirk once held the rank of Admiral, And that Admiral Kirk was broken for taking matters into his own hands in defiance of regulations of the law. Do you deny being demoted for these charges? DON’T WAIT FOR THE TRANSLATION. ANSWER ME NOW!”
Always, always wait for the interpretation before answering, especially if judgment will follow. And always hire a human translator or interpreter, as tempting as it seems to save money by using Google Translate, trying to replace humans with machine translation is a mistake: even if all the gold-pressed latinum is used to develop the most efficient artificial intelligence, it will not be successful.
Think about Data, in his quest to become more human. He tried to comprehend humor, in the episode “The Outrageous Okona” — he is trying to study how to be funny, because a machine (sans the emotion chip) cannot replicate nuances of language like humor, or sarcasm, or even an idiom, Data said it so well “Humor is uniquely human” – and so is translation!
I also like to think about Captain Picard and how his humanity was the only way to understand the Tamarians in the episode “Darmok.” The Universal Interpreter in this episode works properly, each word is translated correctly, yet they cannot communicate. The unique Tamarian language presented a linguistic problem, only a fine diplomat an excellent human like Captain Picard was able to solve: another example of machine translation not being the solution to our communication problems.
And finally, Kelvin-timeline Uhura is the best example and role model for an interpreter, a xenolinguist who is competent, determined, multilingual; a brave woman and just an inspiration to us all. In Star Trek Into Darkness, I love how she volunteers to face the enemy with just her words, she is not afraid to speak up, which is very difficult to do if you are not a drama student, or an entertainer, but just a bookworm who enjoys peace and quiet with a lovely cup of tea, looking up words in different dictionaries.
In conclusion, let us invest in our humanities so language studies play a pivotal role in our quest to keep dialogue as the ultimate tool for peace, women’s views and inclusion in linguistic exercises are vital to represent all of humanity, and machine translation will not replace human translation.
So dust off your heavy Klingon dictionaries, compile your technical glossaries, volunteer for linguistic away missions, study up your Romulan and all of their three dialects, find your voice, and boldly communicate when no one has communicated before.
*Star Trek and the Universal Translator
Note of the Translator: You have not experienced Star Trek until you watch it in its original Spanish. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)