Universal Translator: Dost Thou Speaketh It?


The Universal Translator in Star Trek is perhaps the most used invention in the entire series, well maybe except for artificial gravity.  Almost every instance of communication between different species utilizes this device, and you’d think it works flawlessly, but what happens when it doesn’t?

Star Trek is replete with fascinating and, let’s face it, convenient technology.  Transporters, for instance, were conceived as a cheaper way to move crew from ship to planet since depicting shuttle trips would prove to be too expensive.  The Orville does not face these same limitations in our modern times and chooses the shuttle method, interestingly enough.

Other technology is beginning to see analogs in our current times.  Communicators and PADDs are now made real with our smart phones, and even warp drive has seem some real world possibility, if only theoretically.

Of all the wondrous things that Star Trek has shown us, one of the most overlooked inventions is the Universal Translator.  This device works by processing brain waves in a way to automatically translate language, and one would hope, all the nuances implied within that language.

Practically, the constant and subtle way that this device works results in everyone speaking English or whatever language the viewer speaks.  For audiences and writers this does make life easier, but at the end of the day the Universal Translator is a plot device.  It’s existence is usually only mentioned when it’s pertinent, which is often when it isn’t working.  And like many plot points, its resolution is either underwhelming, or some kind of deus ex machina to save the day.

Of the many times the device is mentioned, there are some instances that transcend others and show us just how finicky it is and how interesting stories can become when communication that is otherwise taken for granted is jeopardized in some way.

Star Trek VI The undiscovered Country – the crew Lost in Translation Copyright Paramount

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

As an ensemble film, and the last to feature The Original Series cast in its entirety, the crew are all given their proper time to shine, and one of my favorite parts is when Uhura and Chekov are tasked with sneaking the Enterprise past a Klingon without using the translator.

Not only is their broken Klingon both hilarious and surprisingly effective at convincing the Klingon on the other end of the line, it shows a flaw of the crew having been so reliant on the Universal Translator.

I think more moments like this would be a reminder that some old-fashioned study time with pronouns and verb conjugations goes a long way, as I learned in high school when I thought I could use Google translate to do my French homework for me.

To the credit of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films, Kelvin Uhura is modernized with an education in non-human languages.  This is definitely a great update from the phone line operator/front desk secretary Gene Roddenberry had originally envisioned the communications officer to be.

Star Trek The Original Series – Devil in the Dark Spock and Kirk

The Devil in the Dark

When Kirk and crew assist a mining colony who has unwittingly stirred up a nest of the local wildlife, they wind up discovering more than they expected when confronting the rock eating and prolific tunneler species, the Horta.

Made of silicone and fibrous asbestos (keep the phone number for that mesothelioma class action lawsuit handy), this strange beast turns out to have been only defending its young.  When Spock uses his Vulcan mind meld to connect with it, he feels intense emotions that are easily understood no matter one’s language, anatomy, or scope of communication.

It’s hard not to identify with organisms who can feel emotions just as we can.  Not all communication is verbal, nor does it need to be.  It’s the reason I can’t stay mad at my dog when he gives me those sad, droopy eyes.

Little Green Men

Quark and family crash and accidentally wind up in 1940’s Earth at the alleged time of the UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico.  This is the kind of premise only Star Trek could pull off, and I love it.  Initially during their detainment, the Ferengi and Humans are unable to communicate, and we have a chance to hear it from both sides instead of just the humans for once.

The humor of this interaction aside, I find myself wanting more things like this to happen in Star Trek.  Seeing how an alien species such as the Ferengi reacts to humans and our language flips the perspective in an entertaining way.

On another note, once the Ferengi manage to get their translators working again, it’s not long before one of the humans compares Quark to his brother who sells used cars. It’s kind of refreshing to know that once the barriers of language are shattered that we can potentially find such commonalities with other species.

Star Trek The Next Generation Patrick Stewart in Darmok


Not only is this the episode where it takes the whole idea of the Universal Translator and turns it on its head, it’s one of the best episodes of Star Trek.  Overcoming differences and working together, forging connections with a new species, empathy and open-mindedness,  this episode embodies many of the timeless qualities of the Federation.

The Tamarians of this episode speak a language which can be deciphered linguistically, but it’s context is nonexistent because they speak in such a metaphorical way that the specific terms they use have no translation.

Watching Picard discover how to reach back into his own knowledge of humanity to speak in metaphor in order to communicate excited a part of me that always wanted to become an archaeologist.  Cultures live not just through the words of their language, but through the meaning attached to those words, and art, and architecture.

It’s hard to believe that this kind of communication isn’t more common in Star Trek.  Even on Earth idioms don’t translate between languages because of differing context, so certainly this is to be expected with completely different species.

Dost Thou Speak It?

Looking at the big picture, there is so much more to any culture than just their language.  But when a series introduces us to so many different races over so many years, we can only expect to learn so much about them, or the writers only have so much time to develop them before moving onto another story.

Maybe in the future, Star Trek could take the more focused and less episodic format it has currently adopted to show us fewer species at a time, and give them more detail.  With fewer episodes spent on “aliens of the week” we might get a better chance to learn about the ones we do meet.

Next. Star Trek style universal translator closer to reality?. dark

The Universal Translator might make it easier for aliens to communicate with the Federation, and essentially us the viewers.  However, I find myself wanting it to work the other way around, and perhaps I’d like to see how much more I could identify with the aliens.