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Klingon bird-of-prey HMS Bounty had to literally travel back to the 20th century to find humpback whales so they could speak to the alien probe threatening to destroy earth, which happened to speak whale.

The universal translator already speaks to the bottlenose dolphin crewmembers - albeit that was 80 years later - but it can't speak or understand whale?

Humpback whalesongs have been widely recorded even in the 20th century before they went extinct. It seems at least some rudimentary library of whale language should have existed as a reference.

Why did the universal translator fail to allow dialogue with the alien probe?

  • 3
    I had thought the problem was not that they couldn’t talk to the probe, but that the probe was there to confirm that the whales were still ok. – Todd Wilcox Sep 28 '19 at 21:00
  • "already", but "80 years later"? Also they may have recordings of whale songs, but no way of knowing what the lyrics meant! – colmde Feb 21 at 14:53
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According to the film's official novelisation, the information coming from the probe "overloaded" the Universal Translator, rendering it incapable of working.

The transmission's cacophony filled the bridge. "The universal translator-" Chitirih-Ra-Dreii said. He abruptly cursed again, using an epithet far up the hierarchy of Deltan curses. Deltans did not even bother with minor curses. "Overloaded, captain. Useless."

and

A blast of sound overwhelmed them with its eerie strangeness. "Nothing we have can translate it," Uhura said. ''Neither the Bounty's original computer nor our universal translator."

After realising that it was using whalesong, they briefly considered playing it recordings, but decided against it, given that the probe might respond negatively rather than positively.

"Spock, couldn't we simulate the humpback's answer to this call?"   "We could replay the sounds, but not the language. We would be responding at best in rote phrases, at worst in gibberish."

For the record, they were right. Had they done so, the probe would have destroyed every living thing on Earth.

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