In the Enterprise episode Civilization, Riann, an Akaali, tells Archer that an oil lamp can be ignited at temperatures somewhere above 300 degrees. I'm sure this isn't the first, or last, time a Starfleet officer has had to give or receive measurements through the Universal Translator. How does this work?

It's simple enough (though of course it is a little far-fetched, as with any Applied Phlebotinum) to presume that the Universal Translator is able to make assumptions about foreign languages based on structure and context. However, measurement systems are developed in very different ways from language. Sometimes, the name for a unit may be unique within the language - not similar to any existing term for a common item - or its root word may not clearly reflect the size or definition of the unit.

For example, consider if someone from the U.S. who was completely unaware of the metric system were to suddenly be thrust into interacting with someone who only knew the metric system. The American could probably deduce from context that "meter" is a measure of length, "liter" is a measure of volume, and "gram" is a measure of mass. However, they would not know exactly how large each of these units were without being taught.

On the other side of the situation, the worker using the metric system could probably deduce that a "foot" is a measure of length and might be able to get reasonably close in deducing its size. But translating "yard" from its root (meaning a branch or rod) leaves too much ambiguity for any assumptions to be accurate.

How does the UT deal with this?

  • 2
    The answer is always "bad writing". If you don't understand why something is the way it is in Star Trek, substitute in "because bad writing" and it starts to make sense.
    – John O
    Jan 16, 2013 at 19:52
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    The only way a universal translator could work is with a large bank of known languages. Without a language bank to match with this "universal translator" would require hours of communication to ever even remotely work. How else could anything be inferred from a 5 word sentence of unknown sounds. Things like measurement units would be selected from the best fitting language. Hopefully you're not expecting canon on this. Jan 16, 2013 at 20:26
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    Is there some award for the most esoteric and dry question possible in the sci-fi universe? There should be a badge for that. Jan 16, 2013 at 23:22
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    I think the really interesting aspect of this is precision. If someone says "Wow! That's over 100 kilometers!" you don't want it to come out "Wow! That's over 62.137119 miles!" Jan 16, 2013 at 23:55
  • @Samuel: Nah, that part is trivial to solve.
    – Junuxx
    Jan 17, 2013 at 15:30

2 Answers 2


That depends on which rules for the Universal Translator you're following. Captain Kirk had his own explanation in TOS 2x02, Metamorphosis. From the Universal Translator page on Memory Alpha:

In 2267, Captain Kirk and Commander Spock of the USS Enterprise modified one to communicate with the alien known as the Companion in the Gamma Canaris region. Responding to Zefram Cochrane's question about the theory of operation, Kirk explained that there are certain universal ideas and concepts common to all intelligent life, and that the translator compared the frequencies of brainwave patterns, selected those ideas it recognized, and provided the necessary grammar. Kirk further explained that the device spoke with a voice, or the approximation of one, that corresponded to the identity concepts it recognized. The Companion was revealed to be female because the universal translator detected this facet of its identity from its brainwave patterns, and assigned it a female voice.

Concepts of size would indeed seem to be universal to me. You can imagine something a yard long, without knowing the word "yard". Likewise for volume. The UT would simply have to know the size and terminology for the language it is translating to.

Temperature, on the other hand, is far more ambiguous. I have no explanation for that, honestly, and I'm not sure there is one.

This explanation of the Universal Translator does not come up again, as far as I know. All subsequent series, including the prequel Enterprise, use the more standard "patterns in the language" version.

We can, however, accept a version of this, based on Betazoid telempathy: They can't sense the thoughts of certain species, due to their brain structure. Likewise, Kirk was probably wrong in that "universal ideas and concepts" aren't actually universal in all species. Nor would it work from a recording. The standard explanation used in TNG/DS9/VOY/ENT could maaaybe be a fallback that works on a much, much larger set of circumstances, in that case.

Personally, I do not like this explanation; having such mind-reading technology opens up a lot of plot holes elsewhere and a dystopian nature to the Federation where it's an everyday occurrence. But it is based in canon and is the only thing I can think of..

  • It may just be a sprinkling of pixie dust, but it's canon. I'll take it.
    – Iszi
    Jan 17, 2013 at 15:47
  • the psycho-tricorder (wolf in the fold) and the "truth pad" (courtmartial) are both mind reading technologies from TOS.
    – SteveED
    Jan 20, 2013 at 16:46
  • Every advanced sentient species would have the concept of absolute zero and water boiling point (or any other material the UT knows the characteristics) providing a very easy way to establish a perfect conversion. Jan 20, 2013 at 21:52

We see in several series that the UT isn't always able to translate all items.

We also see the system is usually able to make correct deductions from a variety of units, but not always.

Let's look at how one comes to a translation for the UT...

Units constructed from body part labels exist in most Terran languages, and by a quick scan, similar units can be translated close enough for verbal approximation. If the unit of measure also triggers the brainwave pattern for the body part, odds are they're homonyms, if not totally interchangeable terms, such as feet, hands, or man-heights.

Likewise, for radio and television capable species, many common objects will have reference sizes, mentioned in transmissions. Especially tall buildings in travel shows. A televideo of "The Urqar Tower Experience" will show it, and likely give it's height overall. If it says the building is "245 shobliks tall" and it measures to 130m, then a shoblik is roughly 58.06cm. Large objects can be readily scanned from orbit and accurately remotely measured, and televideo shows are likely to provide accurate enough measures. Likewise, time increments will usually be consistent, and the time unit subdivisions figured.

Further, many units of time can be grabbed from the Radio and Televideo programming. Most Television on Earth runs in Hour long blocks, often subdivided into 15 minute or 30 minute blocks for shorter programs. News channels are likely to continuously mention the time in units of the second or third level subdivision, depending upon how large the major subdivision is. Further, most units of frequency will be in a tertiary or smaller subunit, and you can compare their cycles unit for conversion to Hertz - Cycles per second. If you can figure out the numbers, you can figure out the frequency time unit by seeing how many waves it takes on that frequency to generate their rating, and get a fairly precise timing increment. It's then just a matter of listening for units. (For reference, our subunit is the hour: 1/24 day; the Secondary is Minutes, and Tertiary is seconds. Not all Terran cultures use 1/24 of the day cycle - Several used 12. Most frequencies are assigned with 3-5 significant digits, and the remainder truncated.)

If the ship's lucky, there are children's programs airing, as well. In such cases, many conversions will be painfully clear.

For primitives, drop a drone unit near the village, with a silent scanner and a high gain set of directional mics, and track the sounds, reverse engineer the raw sounds, and in a few days, have a basic lexicon. If the drone also is able to pick up brainwaves in field effect, then so much the better - the sounds and brain waves will be more tightly linked.

So, we can see how a ship coming into a technically sophisticated system can glean quite a wealth of knowledge. We seldom see a lot of the "backstory" to the Universal Translator, except on Enterprise, where Ms. Sato is working on it. But there is another element...

... Several older starfaring races now long gone, and apparently who dealt with several worlds. The Iconians and the Old Kings of the Klingons, at least. Plus the Q. This means borrowed words and terms influencing local languages. Which makes for easier translation as well. Some of the more stable terms over time are body parts and measurement units. The Ynch changed spelling, but is still the same unit it was in Old English; the actual distance varies by up to 10%, but it's the same term. Drams, Scruples, Pounds and Ounces go back to Rome, their original non-measure meanings lost, but their measurement still being used.

The combination of scanning the frequencies on the inbound, massive computational power, and the best programmers and linguists from dozens of worlds, plus hundreds of lexicons, and common influences in the histories. The only thing amazing is the speed at which they can compile the data. And that's aided by arrival at warp providing squirt trasnmissions.

As for the primitives, we must presume the use of brainwave scanning at close range. But even then, that's far better than the best we have, and what we have can translate known written language in seconds per page.

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