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A Compendium of Fictional Translation Devices

The concept of the Universal Translator has been a staple of science fiction for decades. It’s almost always used as device to solve the rather pesky problem of having to understand all alien life forms without much effort.


Throughout the years it has taken many forms and sizes, but almost always with the same goal of making the world and the universe a more understandable place. We’ll take a short look at the inspiring, helpful, and sometimes silly, translation devices fiction has given us throughout the years.

Created by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, the Babel Fish is a small fish that once inserted in the ear enables you to understand all the languages of the universe. Not only did this brainwave-feeding fish allow the protagonist, Arthur Dent to understand the mind-numbingly boring poetry of the Volgons, it also gave its name to the oldest real world online language translator.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos the Japanese computer scientist Zenji Hiroguchi invents the translation device Gokubi, which can translate between 10 languages. Later on he invents the Gokubi’s successor, the Mandarax, which can not only translate between 1000 languages, but it can also recite poetry, quote famous figures and relate historical events.

On Star Trek, Captain Kirk and co. used a device called, surprisingly, the Universal Translator (UT) to communicate with almost all alien life forms. At first it was a complex device that also needed a skilled linguist to operate it. But as the series progressed it developed into a wand-like device easily carried around. Ultimately it was miniaturized and integrated in the personnel’s uniforms. The UT translated by comparing brainwaves, identifying similar ideas and transforming them into language.

On sillier side note, on the television series Futurama that takes place in the year 3000, Professor Farnsworth also invents a universal translator. It can translate from any language, but only into French – which by the year 3000 is a dead language and thus the device is rendered useless.

With the rapid evolution of CAT tools and machine translation engines the future of the universal translator doesn’t seems so far away anymore. But it’s a comfort to know that a skilled linguist will always be needed for an accurate and professional translation.

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