I saw this question asked recently.

Presuming that Vogonic cosmography and Human cosmography are unlike, the brain waves for the Human interpretation of Barnard’s star would not correlate with the Vogonic brain waves of their interpretation of the same star.

Babel fish

  • 1
    Hi, welcome to SF&F. Instead of "phonetic," since that is a speech element that is exactly what the Babel fish is supposed to elide, perhaps you meant "concept" since you're talking about the mental representation of the idea that corresponds to the label "Barnard's Star?"
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 28, 2020 at 13:22
  • I meant phonetic because I am unaware of the vogonic word that corresponds to phonetic. I don’t have a connection your brain matrix so I can’t mean to convey from your understanding but thank you for the information. Commented Oct 28, 2020 at 18:38
  • Maybe "Vogonic word for Barnard's star" or "Vogonic name for Barnard's star"?
    – Jetpack
    Commented Oct 28, 2020 at 22:49
  • I assumed the Babel fish increted the sound of the words being enunciated by the foreign entity and secreted the adept translation of those foreign enunciated word sounds —between A. Dent & P.V. Jeltz. Phonetic relates to enunciated sounds, so I substituted sound of the word with Phonetic. Commented Oct 29, 2020 at 1:58

1 Answer 1


The Guide says of the Babel fish:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

So the Babel fish is not translating the speech of the hypothetical Vogon, nor even just the brainwaves associated with their language centres. The Babel fish is receiving the entire mental state that accompanies speech, and rendering it into a matrix that maps onto your brain. This transformed brainwave matrix would necessarily include all the referents required to translate star charts.

If you think about it, it's not different than how any other noun is translated; a noun is basically a label for a concept, even if that concept is realized in some physical form in the real world. (But it may not be; "warmth" is a noun with no physical form.)

We can note further that only stars with labels in Earth's sky maps get translated (e.g. "Betelgeuse"); other stars not known to Earth get gibberish names (e.g. "Golgafrincham").

  • So then the Babel fish does not translate at all. We just observe the illusion of it translating speech when it is really matrixing the carrier’s brain with a map that allows the carrier’s brain to match alien concepts with its concepts. I will have to read the explanation in the book to verify the discrepancy between the above quote and the BBC program explanation. Commented Oct 28, 2020 at 18:30
  • @CuereEsone Correct. End of Chapter 5, after Ford puts the fish in Arthur's ear: "He was still listening to the howling gargles, he knew that, only now it had somehow taken on the semblance of perfectly straightforward English." It doesn't change what you hear it just replaces the understanding of it.
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 28, 2020 at 18:38
  • So it seems a babelfish can't translate recordings or long distance broadcasts. This was a huge liability during the earth romulan war which was negotiated over subspace radio which unknown to either side was transferred via a microwormhole to disrupt the favorite soap opera of the emperor of the Andromeda galaxy. In a rage he sent a subspace shock wave to destroy all the Dilithium in our galaxy. Commented Oct 28, 2020 at 21:37
  • Perhaps the brainwaves are stored in the soundwaves. Remember the Babel fish is a tiny yellow space oddity, so some take some protein pills and put your towel on. It’s gonna get micey and there’s nothing I can do. Commented Oct 29, 2020 at 2:04
  • scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/102070/… Gives a similar explanation as above if your interested in how the shipwide broadcast made by P.V. Jeltz transmitted the brainwaves for the Babel fish to excrete as a Vogonic brain matrix for A. Dent. Commented Oct 29, 2020 at 6:49

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