Would running a book through the universal translator make an accurate translation? The universal translator is able to translate languages never heard by the federation practically instantly,(with little to nothing lost in meaning or intent) would it be reasonable to assume, any given modern book could be simply and accurately translated from English to French with no translation issues or lost meaning?

EDIT- the suggested answer is about visually translating a language, this is not what im asking about, as in Enterprise we have at least 1 instance in which Hoshi is communicating with another species through the UT by text, not speech, which shows that the UT can accept input and translate it. This is different then the crew being able to read something on another ship, as the UT does not have optical receptors to input what they are seeing, since it runs audibly off of the ship.

  • Given that the ship's computer can both speak and understand natural language, it seems probable that the translator can translate fluently among languages it knows of. I'd be surprised if there's a definitive, canon answer.
    – Johnny
    Feb 25, 2015 at 2:03
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    It depends entirely on the Era. Least we not forget the Best and Worst episode of TNG: Darmok
    – Tritium21
    Feb 25, 2015 at 2:05
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    To the close votes, im asking about a novel, with subtly, nuance, ect not about a cut and dry literal translation of a control panel. also the accepted answer acknowledges that the UT primarly does spoken language translations, and does not have the capacity to translate what your eyes see, HOWEVER, we have examples from enterprise where the universal translator can translate text that is sent to it, so im talking about uploading a book and running it through the translator.
    – Himarm
    Feb 25, 2015 at 15:58
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    There is definitely a distinction here - Otherwise, there would be no need to offer the complete works of Shakespeare "In the original Klingon".
    – Zibbobz
    Feb 25, 2015 at 16:25
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    If anyone else feels like this shouldn't be closed as its not a dup feel free to flag it for re-open with me.
    – Himarm
    Feb 25, 2015 at 17:41

3 Answers 3


This question is radically underestimating the complexity of translating. Even translating prose between different languages is not straight-forward for a human. Could the UT translate a book. Of course. Would it be any good? Depends on the metric; depends on the material. A technical manual and a book of poetry are entirely different animals.

Strongly recommended listening: http://www.radiolab.org/story/translation/

You will come to the realization that there is no 'correct' translation of most creative works. It strongly depends on what your goals are, and presumably the UT will have differing strengths for different levels of translation.

  • i realize that currently translations are extremely hard, long processes, however, the UT can translate accurately subtleties of the majority of languages the federation meets, instantly, with no loss of context, or meaning. were talking about a program that has access to computing power 1000s times are current total computing power if not more, i feel like it should be able to at this point recognize these things, properly convey meanings ect.
    – Himarm
    Feb 25, 2015 at 15:57
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    @Himarm: The UT can't do what is fundamentally impossible just by having more compute power. It can compute what cannot exist. You can never have a perfect translation of anything but the most literal source material. Everything else depends on your goals. Feb 25, 2015 at 16:01
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    @Himarm: Let me explain this a better by way of example. Suppose you tell a joke in one language which relies on some pun. There does not a direct translation another language because there just isn't a pun there when you translate it directly. The best you can do (what they need to do with movie scripts for example) is try to find some kind of substitute which has the same kind of feel, but definitely not the same meaning. Or keep the meaning and ditch the pun. More computation power doesn't let you find what isn't there in the first place. Feb 25, 2015 at 16:04
  • The UT works on brain waves, and basis universal patterns in thought to translate literally and figuratively. It scans brains. That's why it can work how it does. And why it can't do written.
    – user16696
    Feb 26, 2015 at 15:33
  • @ThePopMachine - But the UT as depicted is already doing something that, realistically, should be fundamentally impossible (unless telepathy or time travel is involved)--correctly translating people's words in realtime, even though the first few words of any sentence would often not contain enough contextual information to make good translation decisions, no matter how much computing power or AI you throw at the problem.
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 13, 2015 at 1:47

Many words from different languages have different meanings or might even be without a direct translation; therefore making it impossible to translate every book without at least losing some meaning here and there and this, even if you are using a professional translator or linguist.

Even within the same language, there are many differences between peoples from different countries. For example, the american version of the Harry Potter series is different from the original version published in England.

Give the same book to ten different translators and you will get ten different versions and quite possibly that you'll get the same result with the Universal Translator (UT) because each different UT unit should develop a different language matrix over time accordingly to its owner and therefore should give a different result even when applied to the same book.

Even the simple expression "from english to french" that you have used might have a different meaning if you are either from England, from the US or from any other country. So, what version should the UT use?


The Universal Translator has trouble distinguishing unique cultural meanings, even when it's not in text.

In the TNG episode The Defector, while aboard the Enterprise, a Romulan asks specifically for a glass of water cooled at a certain Romulan unit of measurement, but the computer cannot recognize it, or translate it into Celcius.

Presumably, stronger ties with the Romulans might mean a more robust database of Romulan terms, and with that the computer may have been able to give this Romulan a glass of correctly cooled water in his own unit of measurement.

Although we never see an example of this in-text within the series, it's reasonable to assume that similar translation issues exist in text as well.

There's also the entire TNG episode Darmok that centers around an entire language that the Universal Translator cannot decypher, due to the level of cultural references inherent in the language.

  • this is a good point, though i know the romulans had little to no interaction with the federation at this point, however, what about 2 languages such as french and English that the translator has had access to for hundreds of years.
    – Himarm
    Feb 25, 2015 at 16:35
  • @Himarm Several hundred years more of context to get it right. Other than that, we don't have anything to go by from the series.
    – Zibbobz
    Feb 25, 2015 at 17:03

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