This short story appeared in an anthology sometime before 1990 (estimated). The human protagonist lives in a small outpost on an alien world, and operates the local general store.

He is approached by an alien who wants him to use his translator box to help negotiate... something... with a different species of aliens. It gradually becomes apparent that the two species of aliens are planning the latest iteration of a recurring war,and that all the humans on the planet would be killed in the process.

Since the box only translates between the human's language and one alien language at a time, the human is able to manipulate the negotiations to postpone the war. One particularly memorable element was that one of the two species communicated in part by spitting into one anothers' mouths. The human was grateful that the translation box wasn't equipped to deal with that.

The human also noted that whoever had programmed the box had a "puckish sense of humor" based on some of the terms used in translation. I think the title had the word "tree" in it.


1 Answer 1


Sounds like The Translator by Kim Stanley Robinson, originally published in the Universe 1 anthology in 1990.

enter image description here

Owen Rumford, a man living in a small town on the planet Rannoch, uses a translation box to facilitate negotations between two alien species, the Ba'arni and the Iggglas, who are intent on beginning the latest round of a periodic ritual war.

The box doesn't allow for direct communication between the Ba'arni and the Iggglas, so Rumford must serve as an interpreter:

Rumford entered his tavern and got the translation box from the shelf behind the bar. It was an old bulky thing, in many ways obsolete; you had to type in the English half of things, and it would only translate between English and the alien languages in its program-no chance of any alien-to-alien direct contact. Made for some trouble in the tavern.

After thinking it over, Rumford typed in another question to the Ba'arni. "Clarification please. What do you mean by x-click B-flat to C-sharp click sequence, in context of previous sentence interrogative." "Clarification please. What do you mean by x-click B-flat to C-sharp click sequence, in context of previous sentence interrogative."

The Ba'arni listened, and the one on the left replied.

"Ba'arni and poison birds fight war in (z-click double sequence; see dictionary) cycle that now returns. Time for this ritual war."

Very good. Clear as a bell. Unfortunate message, of course, but at least he understood it. Must have meant definition four, perhaps tied to the timing of three, or five. Add new definition later.

Before he could convey the Ba'arni sentiments to the Iggglas, the chief Igggla ate another rabbit-thing, danced in a circle and screeched for quite some time. The box hummed a bit, and the screen flickered.

"Fine fiery wonderful this land always again war's heat slag battlefield dead fat food flame death yes now."

The Iggglas spit in one another's mouths for emphasis:

Rumford stepped forward to offer some kind of greeting to the Iggglas, make sure the Ba'arni didn't have to. Touchy situation. He had dealt with Iggglas before; they came from the next planet in, and used Rannoch Station as a trade center. Trade again. Remarkable what kind of thing it put you in contact with, out in this stellar group. Certainly had to get used to these creatures. Language of theirs very loud and squawky. Every once in a while they'd spit in each other's mouths for emphasis. Some kind of chemical transfer of information. Box wasn't equipped to deal with that, luckily. Their speech was enough, although it appeared to be an odd grammar. Lacked tenses, or even verbs for that matter. Another indication of different reality.

Rumford muses that whoever added the Ba'arni program to the box was a "puckish individual":

Rumford sighed. The Ba'arni dictionary could be nearly useless. Never sure if it was really serious. No idea who actually wrote the thing. Basic programming provided by linguists working for the company that made the box, of course, but in the years since then (and it was a very old box), its various owners had entered new information of their own. In fact this one was jammed with languages that factory-new boxes didn't have. No other box Rumford had seen had a Ba'arni program; that was why Rumford had bought this one when it was offered by a passing spacecraft pilot. But who in fact had added the Ba'arni program? Rather puckish individual, from the look of it. Or perhaps the Ba'arni relied more than most on context. Some languages like that. Impossible to be sure. The box had worked to this point, and that was all Rumford could say about it. Trade a different matter, however. Not quite as delicate as this.

  • 1
    I love the ending. One of the aliens indicates he knew what the "10 fingers on the forearms" was doing but is happy with postponing of the war. Somebody had to add the dictionary to the box, which means that some human had to spend a lot of the time with the aliens. Which also means that some alien had to spend a lot of time with the human and learn human language.
    – jo1storm
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 9:38
  • 1
    This is it, thanks! I was able to figure out that I read it in the anthology Universe1, edited by Robert Silverberg, published in 1991.
    – nekokami
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 21:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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