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.

Now, see many animals on Earth (ofcourse, excluding humans): They aren't completely dumb. They live in colonies. They hunt in group with great coordination. Some pets even responds to their master. etc.. etc.. They are little intelligent without doubt. Can their brainwave patterns be used to communicate with them?

I have never encountered (or, not in my mind) anyone trying to communicate with animals. Is it possible? Have such thing been mentioned in the canon (saying, possible or impossible)? Is there a certain intelligence level which is required for universal translator to work?

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    There are several episodes, such as Voyager's Resolutions, where the crew meet alien animals and try to talk to them.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 7:42
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    Apparently is couldn't translate the language of dolphins and wales. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 9:51
  • What was the people called that spoke only in "anecdotes"? The translator managed to translate them as such (anecdotes) but not the "real" meaning. Likewise, the structure of dog barfing (mostly just "go away") is is not rich enough to detect the larger pattern. And did anyone try to decode baby crying (someting Homer Simpson's brother succeeded in)? Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 16:39
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    @HagenvonEitzen: The Children of Tama, from the episode Darmok. And metaphors, not anecdotes.
    – Junuxx
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 20:30
  • Star Trek IV The Voyage Home would have been a lot shorter.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 17:55

2 Answers 2


The term "intelligent life" is used here more as a specific technical term than a general description. It refers specifically to sapience. Although we might consider some animals to be "intelligent" in many ways, which is a subjective concept, the requirements to be considered sapient are much more strict and defined.

The word sapience is derived from the Latin sapientia, meaning "wisdom".[30] Related to this word is the Latin verb sapere, meaning "to taste, to be wise, to know"; the present participle of sapere forms part of Homo sapiens, the Latin binomial nomenclature created by Carolus Linnaeus to describe the human species. Linnaeus had originally given humans the species name of diurnus, meaning man of the day. But he later decided that the dominating feature of humans was wisdom, hence application of the name sapiens. His chosen biological name was intended to emphasize man's uniqueness and separation from the rest of the animal kingdom.

By its very definition, sapience is what separates "man" from "animals", and therefore animals are not sapient.

  • 1
    Relevant, Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Intelligence: youtube.com/watch?v=NxfJfv9tirU
    – Robotnik
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 6:21
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    Nice one, but I am looking for canonical answer.
    – user931
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 7:34
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    Sapience has no rigorous scientific definition; it's actually a philosophical definition.
    – aramis
    Commented Jan 21, 2013 at 18:43

One of the Ferengi tries to interrogate Porthos in Acquisition and "can't lock onto its language". His buddy claims this is because "It's a lower life-form, you fool!" So at least for them at that point in time there's some sort of high-level requirement.

Video of the scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hh2wko-kMKI

  • 1
    I am talking about universal translator of humanity/federation. Working principle of that of Ferengi isn't known. Maybe, that's inferior tech.
    – user931
    Commented Jan 20, 2013 at 6:04

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