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In the Star Trek: TNG episode "Pen Pals", Data receives a short transmission from a single individual in an unknown civilization asking, "Is anybody out there?" Data is able to understand this and respond. Later, when Sarjenka's transmissions are played to the crew, the Universal Translator (or analogous) adjusts the audio so that we can hear her in English.

How could Data understand the first message? Even accounting for the handwavium powering the UT, a message saying "Is anybody out there?" is so short and limited that it seems to be completely undecipherable by someone with no knowledge whatsoever of the planet sending the transmission. Equally, how could Data compose an answer in Sarjenka's language? There is no mention in the episode of other sources of information on the planet besides Sarjenka.

The UT seems to operate on brainwaves or some such handwavium, but the Enterprise wasn't even too close to Sarjenka's planet. (The time-lag involved in the radio, non-subspace transmissions of a pre-warp civilization is its own question...)

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    You are obviously right, but it's too bad the producers do not understand basic information theory. It is impossible to extract more than n bits of information from an n-bit message in an unknown code (i.e language). Even if we assume a universal grammar, it only adds O(1) information. And obviously, it's impossible to figure out code-words (words) that do not even occur in the training data!
    – user21820
    Aug 8, 2021 at 14:23
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    Well, if C-3PO can translate over 6 million languages, Data has to be at least as good....
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 9, 2021 at 13:50
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    @CGCampbell Doesn't C3PO just translate between languages he knows? Or at least among languages that have roots in languages he knows? Aug 9, 2021 at 17:20
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    With the benefit of hindsight / experience in machine learning techniques today, there is another obvious possibility: The universal translator made it all up. It's not all that unreasonable to guess that someone sending a message into the cosmos is saying "is anybody out there" even if you can't understand any part of the message. It's not like the UT ever states its confidence levels... (In fact, this is basically exactly what you would get if you asked a ML system to "enhance" today.) Aug 9, 2021 at 23:51
  • Yes, C-3PO can discern if a language is a dialect of one he knows how to translate and extrapolate from there. Aug 10, 2021 at 17:12

4 Answers 4

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DATA: Computer, identify please.

COMPUTER: Sensors indicate low-level rf waves.

DATA: Is there a pattern?

COMPUTER: Affirmative.

DATA: Naturally occurring?

COMPUTER: Negative.

DATA: Key universal translator, please.

COMPUTER: Unable to comply. Weak signal.

DATA: Lock on comm. link and boost.

COMPUTER: Lock on complete.

DATA: Read, please.

COMPUTER: Insufficient signal strength.

DATA: Enhance, please.

SARJENKA [OC]: Is anybody out there?

DATA: Yes.

Star Trek: The Next Generation S02E15: "Pen Pals"

Above is all the dialogue we hear in the main scene you're asking about, with the specific line you're asking about highlighted in bold. Note that Data specifically turned on the Universal Translator (UT) about halfway through the scene, so it's safe to say that it was attempting to translate Sarjenka's language for the remainder of the scene.

It couldn't translate the incoming message immediately because the signal was too weak, but Data told the computer to enhance the signal, and four seconds later we heard the words "Is anybody out there?" come through the Enterprise's comms system in English.

So the real conundrum your question raises isn't really how Data understood the message, but rather, how was the UT able to accurately translate such a short message, from a species Starfleet had no previous contact with.

And the honest answer to that is we don't know, because the UT is a fictional piece of technology whose workings are only somewhat vaguely explained. For what it's worth though, here's what the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual has to say about it:

DERIVING A TRANSLATION MATRIX

The first step in deriving a translation matrix is to obtain as large a sample as possible of the unknown communication. Wherever possible, this sample should include examples of at least two native speakers conversing with each other. Extensive pattern analysis yields estimates on symbology, syntax, usage patterns, vocabulary, and cultural factors. Given an adequate sample, it is usually possible to derive a highly simplified language subset in only a few minutes, although Federation policy generally requires a much more extensive analysis before diplomatic usage of the Universal Translator is permitted.

In the case where the individual lifeform communicated with has a similar language translation technology, it is sometimes useful to translate outgoing messages into the Linguacode language form, since this is specifically designed as a culturally neutral "antiencrypted" language medium.

LIMITATIONS

The accuracy and applicability of the translation matrix is only as good as the language sample on which the matrix is based. A limited sample will generally permit a basic exchange of concepts, but can lead to highly distorted translations when concepts, vocabulary, or usage vary too far from the sample. Since the Universal Translator constantly updates the translation matrix during the course of usage, it is often useful to allow the program to accumulate a larger linguistic sample by exchanging simple subjects before proceeding to the discussion of more complex or sensitive subjects.

So the Technical Manual suggests that the UT normally requires a larger sample of a new alien language than it likely received in this episode, in order to derive a viable translation matrix.

That said, the writers are naturally free to bend the rules with things like that, based on the needs of the plot. And if we wish to make sense of this particular scene, there are a few assumptions we could make that'd allow us to view this as a less severe violation of the rules than it otherwise would be.

For example, while the episode suggests that the UT's initial translation of Sarjenka's words successfully interpreted the jist of what she was trying to say, couldn't it have been a rough translation, rather than a perfect one? I don't see any reason why not.

I also don't see any confirmation that Data's initial response of "Yes" was understood by Sarjenka. Data later told Picard that he'd been communicating with Sarjenka over the past eight weeks, but that doesn't prove she understood the very first word/s he spoke to her. Perhaps it took a few minutes for them to be able to have a working conversation.

Thirdly, note that the Technical Manual states that the UT uses things like syntax to derive a translation matrix, rather than brainwaves. Although Memory Alpha mentions brainwaves being a factor in the workings of the UT, I don't recall that being stated in any episode, whereas syntax definitely has been mentioned as a factor in canon (see the quote below).

Fourthly, it's been indicated that the more dissimilar the syntax and grammatical structure of a new language is to the ones in Starfleet's existing database, the longer it takes the UT to derive a translation matrix.

SISKO: Something must be wrong with the Universal Translator. Chief?

O'BRIEN: It's working, Commander, but for some reason it's having a hard analyzing their language patterns. Their syntax and their grammatical structure must be completely unlike anything in our database.

SISKO: We'll have to keep them talking until the computer can establish a translation matrix.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine S02E10: "Sanctuary"

It follows from this that the more similar the syntax and grammatical structure of a new language is to the ones in the database, the more quickly the UT can translate it. Perhaps Sarjenka's language happened to have similar syntax to one or more languages already known to Starfleet, making it relatively easy to translate.

And that's not necessarily as extreme a coincidence as you might think. The TNG episode "The Chase" established that an ancient humanoid race seeded many worlds with its DNA, meaning that many humanoid races within Star Trek are distant relatives. Sarjenka's species could be one of these races; she was certainly humanoid, and mammalian in appearance.

The TOS episode "Bread and Circuses" also introduced Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development, which was cited to explain how the people of planet 892-IV came to speak English, and live within a culture very similar to that of Ancient Rome, completely independent of any contact with Earth.

FLAVIUS [OC]: Don't move! Hands in the air!

SPOCK: Complete Earth parallel. The language here is English.

[...]

FLAVIUS: Are you trying to be funny?

SPOCK: Never. Colloquial twentieth-century English. An amazing parallel.

Star Trek: The Original Series S02E14: "Bread and Circuses"

If two species can develop the English language independent of one another, then it's not that much of a stretch by comparison to think that two species could independently develop languages that merely happen to have similar syntax.

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    Regarding the UT being able to translate Sarjenka's transmission, if we feel like extending the benefit of the doubt we could say that the Enterprise began monitoring transmissions from her planet as soon as soon as they became aware that there was life on. That would have given the UT access to native conversations from which to build a translation matrix.
    – Xantec
    Aug 8, 2021 at 7:08
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    As for the UT being unable to translate in specific instances, it isn't even as cut and dry as "it works, or it doesn't". In TNG Darmok the UT was able to translate the vocabulary of the Tamarians, but was unable to translate the syntax.
    – Xantec
    Aug 8, 2021 at 7:12
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    The real question is why Flavius is speaking English instead of Latin. (Of course we know why, though: it's an American TV show.)
    – RonJohn
    Aug 9, 2021 at 15:17
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    So the "Zoom and Enhance" trope apparently also applies to audio. Aug 9, 2021 at 19:58
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    There’s no dialogue in the episode to support this, but perhaps the Enterprise also received and analyzed other radio transmissions from the same planet, and that was their corpus? Really, though, it's a plot device that the writers didn’t want to call attention to.
    – Davislor
    Aug 9, 2021 at 20:08
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The universal translator is just that good. In classic Sci-Fi fashion, the universal translator is indistinguishable from magic because it is sufficiently advanced.

The breathtaking efficiency of the UT is most aptly demonstrated by the one time it doesn't work in DS9 : Sanctuary

As they attempt to communicate, Sisko and the others realize that the Skrreeans don't appear to understand what they are saying, nor can the crew understand the Skrreeans. They resolve to keep the Skrreeans talking until the universal translator can make sense of the Skrreean language, and decide to bring the group of them, Haneek, Tumak, Gai, and Cowl, down to the infirmary to tend to the wounds of one.

As you can see the UT generally works so well, the crew are 1) surprised that it isn't working and 2) don't have any back up plan beyond keep trying it until it works.

Throughout DS9 and Voyager we see interaction with new races from the Gamma and Delta quadrants, were there is zero chance of the UT having previous data to analyse the new languages. The UT works immediately practically every time, to absolutely no one's surprise.

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    Don't forget the other time it failed: with the Tamarians in the outstanding TNG S5E2 Darmok.
    – gidds
    Aug 8, 2021 at 17:20
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    Honestly the only way I can see a UT actually working this well is if it has some sort of psychic element to it based on an as-yet undiscovered universal language of thought. Which itself is pretty far-fetched for the real world but given psychics who can trivially work cross-species exist in this universe, and combined with the new age "thought is the basis of all reality" crap, it's kind of my headcanon here. Point is you can't just pour technobabble on a problem until it goes away. A single sentence is not enough to accurately decipher an entire language using logic alone.
    – Muzer
    Aug 9, 2021 at 11:17
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    @gidds I watched that one last night and it's not that the UT failed there. The UT was translating the words correctly, but the UT cannot give you the context of the words. Thus if you have a race of folks that use only metaphors, you're out of luck.
    – Machavity
    Aug 9, 2021 at 13:55
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    @Barmar True, but in their case all their metaphors were literary. As Dr Crusher noted, saying "Juliet on her balcony" evokes a response, but only if you know who she was and what she was doing up there. The context is key.
    – Machavity
    Aug 9, 2021 at 15:52
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    @gidds the Babelfish is deliberately a clever and hilarious send-up of this. AND it explicitly establishes a universal language of thought (in this case in the form of brainwaves), which is more than any Star Trek UT explanation does... The explanation can be boiled down to "Babelfish eats brainwaves from others, and excretes brainwaves in a form the host brain can understand". IMHO this is actually more realistic than the non-explanation given by Star Trek... ;)
    – Muzer
    Aug 9, 2021 at 23:57
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This is speculative, but: Sarjenka’s transmission is not the only information Data has about the planet. Picard opens the episode by saying that the Enterprise is the first manned starship to explore the system, and Data’s first line in the episode is, “I have been reviewing the unmanned probe scans.” It is plausible that those previous unmanned probes gathered a corpus of Sarjenka’s language, possibly by recording other radio transmissions from Drema Four.

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    This is the best answer that doesn't rely on the UT being completely magic. Aug 10, 2021 at 12:00
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In several episodes Star Trek groups find large databases. In "An Obol For Charon" they get the sphere data, and in "Twisted" a random alien gives Voyager massive amounts of data.

If the universal translator worked, presumably they did have a language sample from some source. Perhaps someone else received enough radio transmissions for a translation.

The fact that it could translate the language shows they do have enough language data.

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