Star Trek's universal translator is always either directly depicted as a device (see images on linked article) or is implied to be a device somewhere on the speaker's person (most likely built into Starfleet com-badges).

But there are many instances where:

  1. Characters imprisoned after all their equipment and uniforms are taken away continue to communicate with aliens who don't speak English or don't have their own UTs.
  2. A character forgets (or is made to forget) his identity and lives among an alien race that speaks another language.
  3. Characters communicate with alien species in a location where dampening fields or other phenomena render technology ineffective.

Putting aside number #3 (which is a killer), does this mean that the most likely possibility is that the UT is an implant? Canon answers not essential (I couldn't find any myself), but alternative possibilities are welcome.

  • 4
    These points are definitively artistic licence. The combadge does carry the universal translator, when people are not on the ship.
    – bitmask
    Mar 28, 2012 at 9:09
  • Could you give specific examples of the above? It's not clear to me what episodes you're referring to. Mar 28, 2012 at 15:02
  • 2
    As an aside, I always wondered if the experience of speaking to someone through a UT was similar to watching a low budget Kung-Fu movie where the mouth doesn't match the words and may continue to move long after the sound has stopped.
    – user62584
    Jul 1, 2018 at 7:47

5 Answers 5


In Star Trek (the original, that's why I treat it as a title), the universal translator was a cylinder like device. In Star Trek: The Next Generation it was in the communicator, which is part of the uniform. In Who Watches the Watchers, Troi and Riker have subcutaneous communicators implanted so they can communicate without the natives seeing them use technology (this was the only time in the series they used implanted communicators). This does show us that the communicators can be embedded without being observed. Considering the small size of circuitry at this point, that likely includes the translator circuit as well. (Especially since neither Troi or Riker likely spoke the native language.)

I don't have a writer's guide or direct behind the scenes info on Deep Space Nine or Voyager. There was no on-screen reference to embedded translators on screen, though. Supposedly they still used the standard "worn as an insignia" communicators.

In Enterprise it's referenced and shown, in one case, that the communicator work directly with translator -- there's even one scene (forget the episode) where Archer's communicator stops working and to cover for it, he grabs the women he's talking to and kisses her.

From a behind the scenes point of view, the UT is obviously a writer's device to simplify the writing and the story. When they're speaking with aliens where we would not know the language, we don't hear a translation from the communicator for either side of the conversation. By making it part of the uniform, and something that was worn, that put the entire issue of language in the background, as something that didn't have to be dealt with in terms of plot. (Much like the way the language issue was just handwaved in Stargate: SG1.)

While there may be exceptions, I'm pretty sure that in The Next Generation there were no cases of them losing communicators and still communicating with non-Federation speaking aliens (whatever language it is that the Federation uses!). Since I had hopes of writing for TNG, and ended up pitching to the producers at one point (and had to stop when they shut the doors temporarily, then had a situation that kept me from returning for a long time), and had the chance that I might return to pitch again, I watched that series very closely.

I am not sure if they were as picky in DS9 and VOY, but if they weren't, as much as I love in-universe answers, I'd still say it was poetic license if they lost their communicators and still talked with people who would be using a foreign language.

On the other hand, I'd like to see someone cite episodes of any of the 24th century shows (TNG, DS9, VOY) where they didn't have communicators (or some other translator) and were talking with people who should not be expected to be speaking in some form of "Galactic Standard".

  • 3
    There is a line in The Cage where the captors say of Captain Pike something like: "We have allowed it to keep its translator device". Mar 28, 2012 at 15:09
  • @DJClayworth: D'oh! I was thinking of the different series and forgot to include The Cage!
    – Tango
    Mar 28, 2012 at 15:11
  • How about en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Workforce_(episode)
    – HNL
    Mar 29, 2012 at 3:41
  • 1
    What about the episode of DS9 where Quark has to have his translator fixed in his ear with a screwdriver? I think they were on modern day earth for some reason.
    – Kalamane
    May 12, 2012 at 20:34
  • 1
    @Kalamane: It's been a while since I've seen that, but I don't think he was using a Federation translator.
    – Tango
    May 13, 2012 at 14:55

Well, I'm not entirely sure about Starfleet translators (IIRC they're normally contained in com badges) but in the DS9 episode Little Green Men you see Quark, Rom and Nog attempt to repair their universal translators which are apparently in their ears.

From this we can at least assume that Federation universal translators are also possible to miniaturize to a similar degree.


In the TNG S4E15 "First Contact" Riker awakens in an alien hospital, without his comm badge and is able to communicate perfectly with the natives, despite their being a pre-warp civilization.

  • 1
    Could it procedure to have an additonal in ear translator for situations like this.
    – Pioneer
    Jun 10, 2015 at 15:45

No, as references, they can have implants when making first contact, but it's de facto in the combadge. Janeway gestures toward her combadge ('37s') I assume all galactic species have Universal Translators (UTs), so, because, as indicated in Voyager ('37s'), UTs are bi-directional, the captors UT allows two way communication.

  • If you want to ask an additional question, it should be asked as an additional question not incorporated into an answer :-)
    – Valorum
    Jul 26, 2015 at 18:49
  • 1
    @Richard this is a answer, well, its inteded to be
    – Pioneer
    Jul 26, 2015 at 18:49
  • 1
    Multiple. The Voyager S03E04 The Swarm is one example.
    – user16696
    Jul 26, 2015 at 18:56

In the Voyager episode "The '37s", ancient (by then) humans from the 20th century are awoken from stasis and are immediately able to communicate with the crew. One of them is Japanese, and notes that everyone appears to be speaking Japanese, while the English speakers (and the audience) are all hearing English.

So whatever the Universal Translator is, it apparently allows other people in the area to hear everything in their own language too. At various times it has been suggested it is part of the Starfleet communication badge, or some kind of implant, but in either case it can apparently affect everyone in an area.

Like the exact workings of the transporters, the Universal Translator's depiction on screen is inconsistent and deliberately vague. People unfamiliar with it apparently don't notice that the speaker's lips are not synchronized with their speech, and it learns new languages with impossible speed.

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