Everybody on this site must be familiar with the Universal Translator of Star Trek. I do not recall any explanation, even a vague one, of how it worked, and worked (almost?) instantaneously at that. In contrast, FTL travel has at least one arm-waving justification in the wormhole (although this does not apply to FTL travel in Star Trek.)

My question is: Is there an argument used in SF as to how a UT might work -- beyond just it reads one's mind?

  • IIRC, in The Encyclopedists the diplomat's words were analyzed mathematically, but by a person, not a machine. Jul 30 '15 at 22:29
  • 2
    You really have two questions here: "what other works use universal translators?" and "how do universal translators work?" The first question is off-topic, because it's an unending list of works. The second one is too broad, because it depends on the rules of the specific universe. If you modified the question to be "How do universal translators work in Star Trek?" it would be better (though a dupe, I think) Jul 30 '15 at 23:02
  • You could also ask, what is the earliest SF work with a universal translating machine?
    – user14111
    Jul 30 '15 at 23:07
  • 1
    This SF Encyclopedia article might be of interest: sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/universal_translator
    – user14111
    Jul 30 '15 at 23:41
  • @RIchard The earlier discussion puts UT on as sound a scientific footing as FTL! Which is what I wanted.
    – ab2
    Jul 31 '15 at 0:17

Larry Niven's Draco Tavern series (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Draco_Tavern) is a collection of short stories that deals with a bar on earth that aliens tend to hang out at, being located right next to the earth embassy.

One of the recurring themes is how difficult it is to maintain the universal translator and the ethics of deploying and creating one. This is due to any truly usable universal translator would have to itself be sentient to develop proper models of mind for the participants in the conversation. So, the universal translator works on the same principle as a human translator, a sentient being simulated in software tasked (or enslaved perhaps) with interpreting and translating.

Although it was only brought up a few times as a story element, Larry Niven wrote about it in his non-fiction writing discussing the work.

  • The earlier discussion referenced by Richard plus your answer puts UT on as sound a basis as FTL!
    – ab2
    Jul 31 '15 at 0:05

Babel Fish

From Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Of course, this is not a "machine" but rather a living creature. However, Douglas Adams also suggests it could not have evolved naturally. The wikipedia sums up this state of affairs:

"The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix."

It is a universal translator that neatly crosses the language divide between any species. The book points out that the Babel fish could not possibly have developed naturally, and therefore it both proves and disproves the existence of God.

Of course, this seems to fall into the deus ex machina category (or, possibly, the reverse, but I can't remember my Latin cases well enough to recall the proper endings needed to reverse that).


The TARDIS from Doctor Who translates both spoken and written languages into a format the doctor and companions can understand, and also translates what they say into format the people they are interacting with can understood. It is said that this is accomplished by a telepathic link between the TARDIS and the Doctor (plus companions), but I'm not aware of any details beyond that.

There are others listed at wikipedia, but that is definitely not comprehensive, and lists the show Stargate which I believe explicitly didn't have a universal translator. (Almost everyone in the Stargate universe speaks English.)

  • Thank you; this is useful. I going to see what my question as modified elicits.
    – ab2
    Jul 30 '15 at 23:19

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