In Netflix's new TV series, Altered Carbon, based on Richard K. Morgan's novel of the same name, there are several instances where characters will speak foreign languages and other characters will respond as if they completely understood them, even if they were not the native language of the speaker.

some mostly spoiler free examples:

  • Episode 1, Jaeger speaks german to Takeshi and Takeshi responds in Japanese.
  • Episode 1, Takeshi seems to understand the Spanish that Kristin says to him in the car
  • Episode 1, Samir and Kristin have conversations where Samir injects sentences in Arabic
  • Episode 3, Isaac Bancroft holds a conversation in Japanese with Takeshi and some Japanese investors
  • Episode 4, Samir and Alazne have a conversation where one speaks Arabic and the other speaks Spanish

While some of these are explainable (Isaac is presumably well educated and might have had business dealings with Japan, Samir learned Spanish after being close to the Ortega family, Takeshi is an Envoy and presumably would know many world languages), the pervasiveness of these examples suggests that there is some sort of technology that lets people understand different languages.

Does a universal language translator exist or are all of these characters just multilingual?

  • Seems to be a generic trope, similar to Aliens speaking English (TVTropes link, you've been warned)
    – Edlothiad
    Feb 4, 2018 at 11:14
  • 1
    In the book everyone just seems to be well-educated and multilingual. Kovacs speaks at least five languages natively.
    – Valorum
    Feb 4, 2018 at 11:23
  • I ask because Alazne seems to be a "normal grounder" who is a Neo-C (and therefore would not have been needlecasting around the world). Unless if that means every school children is required to learn 8-9 languages as a child, it doesn't explain why, for example, Dimi would assume people understood Russian.
    – Hans Z
    Feb 4, 2018 at 19:50
  • Also, code switching between languages isn't seamless even for multilingual people, so having a conversation half in Arabic and half in Spanish would be really inconvenient.
    – Hans Z
    Feb 4, 2018 at 19:51

4 Answers 4


According to Martha Higareda (who portrays Det. Kristin Ortega) it was explained to her that pretty much everyone in the show is multi-lingual. Characters tend to speak their home language but are invariably understood by those around them.

No explanation is given how this feat is accomplished other than that this is a very cosmopolitan world.

Martha Higareda: And also something very interesting that I think she [Laeta Kalogridis] did, that is visionary too, is that people talk and they speak their language at times in the show and the other person understands perfectly as we all speak every language, almost.


Well, it's hard to prove a negative here, but...

Having binged the entire show, I saw no mention anywhere of something like a "universal translator". It sounds highly plausible, given that everyone involved in these multilingual exchanges has embedded advanced technology with internet access in them (the ONI, in particular). But I recall nothing that ever formally explained it.

Most of these people living multiple lives and traveling a lot is also a plausible explanation for learning languages the old fashioned way. It may also represent that this world has become such a melting pot that being multilingual is a simple necessity, or even that there is actually just "one" language that was formed as the amalgamation of several.

I'm not familiar with the book, however.

  • 1
    Not a far stretch at all, given that we already currently have prototypes being advertised for market that do the exact same thing.
    – Gnemlock
    Feb 4, 2018 at 10:59

My theory is what if the different sleeves they pop in and out of, and/or the previous occupants of the sleeve spoke different languages, so they at times involuntarily switch between them. Kovacz mentions sleeve memory when he's talking about why he is attracted to the detective. So maybe it's sleeve memory of previous languages spoken. My two cents, but I'm keen to hear more ideas

  • This seems like a plausible theory, but do you have any evidence to back it up?
    – Valorum
    Apr 15, 2018 at 17:01

Keeping in mind that one’s consciousness is “coded and stored as DHF” let’s pretend the human mind is on a computer. Computers are comprised of as two parts, the hardware and the software.

  • the hardware are the things like, the monitor, the mouse, the microchips, the processor... actual tangible items you can hold in your hand... Or, in this instance... the human body or “sleeve”.

  • The software are the programs that contain coding that tell the computer how to operate and function. A computer is nothing without those programs, you can’t write a word document without telling the computer to do. So the programs are the DHF or Stack.

Finally, let me get to the point... What if these people purchased programs to be able to understand and speak different languages?

Alazne would have bought the Arabic language, and downloaded it into her DHF to be able to understand Samir because they were dating and would need to understand eachother, perhaps Takeshi knows several languages because their free downloads were a perk, of not a required thing to do in service of CTAC. Isaac is rich and his father does business with the Japanese so it would make since Isaac would have the upgraded version of these downloads and be able to both understand AND speak that language.

Just my theory.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.