How do you navigate the translations of alien language?

If you write sci-fi, then at some time or another, you’re sure to come across the issue of language. It’s a problem area for realists like myself- and a universal translator simply doesn’t cut it. I understand the notion of such a device in well established series (Star Trek, for example) where common races from the same region of space regularly communicate with one another. It’s not inconceivable to think that one day, a computer program will automatically translate the words from those around you into a language you can recognise. But what about when you come into contact with a brand new species?

voyager
Voyager’s universal translator seemed rather handy, if unrealistic

I’ve recently been watching back-to-back ST: Voyager on SyFy (yes, I think Janeway rocks)! However, here they are, stranded in the Delta Quadrant and as soon as they come across another race never before seen by humandkind – wham, instant English translation. There’s not even a few hours or day delay whilst the software analyses the phonetics. There was one episode of ST:DS9 that highlighted the issue and I, for one, was glad to see a little realism. Meanwhile, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy used the ‘Babel fish’; a small organism that’s placed in the auditory canal, and whilst universal translation was largely used in Star Wars, I’m always glad to see some use of interpretors; with Jabba, for example.

But here we’re talking about film. What about books?

babelfish
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had a fun idea; the Babel fish, which is inserted into the ear.

It’s not easy, but having an actor developing a few lines of gibberish for an alternate language on film is a lot easier than having pages of utter undecipherable words in a novel. And there’s the vision of it too; I mean, who wants to flip the page and work their way through entire paragraphs of nonsense? That would almost certainly see me giving up on the book entirely. Still, I’m not keen on automatic translation – especially if characters are a) dealing with a brand new alien race or b) nowhere near a spaceship or other technology that could be automatically translating. So, we back to translators.

For those who’ve read the CRYO series, you’ll know that when John first stumbles across Earth’s new residents, he cannot understand a word they say. Nor, apparently, do they have any idea to what these strange humans are talking about either. I managed to get by the lengthy language issues by having a small group of scientists and archaeologists having learned English to help them with their own research – having no idea that they’d actually encounter humans one day. There are a very few bio-translators that are programmed with set language skills, but these are rudimentary compared with the universal translators often seen. And, as the series progresses, I expect to continue the use of translators, not only for realism but also because it gives a sense of diversity. And, of course, it allows the odd alien word to be thrown in – useful when you need to use obscene language without being too obvious.

Thoughts? When you’re reading, do you care about the intricacies of language, or are you just happy everyone can understand one another? And, when writing, do you plump for a translation software, or have fun with some alien language?

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