August 3, 2010

On universal translation (, , )

by fluffy at 7:42 PM
In science fiction series where there's some sort of universal translation thing which uses some ill-defined 'receiving the intent' sort of thing (Farscape, Star Trek, etc.), it seems likely that all civilizations would eventually lose their own cohesive languages. After all, if all children could just understand and be understood implicitly in whatever random babbling they come up with, there's no reason for them to adjust and learn their own civilization's common language, right?

So really, when there's a scene from the perspective of someone who is without the translation conceit, it seems like everyone should just sound like squealing, growling, baby babble, and the like.


#13285 Linktoreality 08/03/2010 11:25 pm
    I've gotta disagree- without learning language, sentient creatures could do little more than simply communicate the most basic of needs- hunger, drowsiness, anger, lust. Someone with no education whatsoever could not understand things like chemistry, physics, art, etc. without language, and few of us are innately intelligent enough to figure those out on our own in order to 'intent' them over.

    On the other hand, I suppose if you went far enough back, people would have learned these things from others who already understood them, making my argument moot. Hrm. This requires more thought.
    #13286 fluffy 08/03/2010 11:40 pm
      Yeah, that's sort of my point - either people would have no framework for actually learning language and society would collapse, or peoples' natural personal languages (the way they personally refer to concepts with what they have in their head) would be enough for the translator to work on and so no two people have the same verbal language as each other.

      Of course, it's not like the shows' translators were at all consistent anyway. Apparently, Star Trek: TNG's translators were able to make it so that deaf people could read English lips (but not actually express things in the same way), and of course it always conveniently skipped many (but not all) idioms and most Klingon. (And French, in the first season when Picard still pretended to actually be of French origin.)

      This was more brought on by the episode of Farscape where John goes to (spoiler: not actually) Earth and we see that to the other (spoiler: not actually) Earthlings, Aeryn is speaking Sebacean (which sounds suspiciously like random babbling played backwards).

      Incidentally (and somewhat topically), the word "gas" came from a bunch of people not understanding Jan Baptist van Helmont's heavy Dutch accent when he said the word "chaos." (Hey, is Dr. Alexander still teaching chemistry, speaking of which? You really must take one of his classes if at all possible.)
      #13287 Neillparatzo 08/04/2010 12:09 am
        Most of the things people say are just proxies for hunger, drowsiness, anger, or lust.
        #13288 ucblockhead 08/04/2010 09:44 am Language
          There probably wasn't a time when a human "learned" the concept of language from another. It's fairly clear that language wasn't so much invented as evolved. When humans aren't exposed to language, the invent their own as toddlers, with rules of grammar and everything.

          The idea of a "universal translater" that can understand language of a non-terrestrial based on a couple samples is entirely non-sensical anyway. Most likely you aren't going to get perfect translation of even terrestrial languages out of anything that isn't an AI.
          #13292 StevePoling 08/05/2010 01:31 pm no so fast
            I think that if you're going to have a universal translator, you're going to need to consider each species' domain of discourse which will be a reflection of their cognitive capacity. Let's suppose this is in the typical SF framework, so you'll have a collection of diverse species who are all capable of interstellar travel. They will each have to understand FTL to even get there.

            I think each linguistic model would have to have something like an axiomatic system at its heart. Some axiomatic systems are too simplistic to derive any interesting theorems. These might correspond to the Dr. Dolittle modules for dogs, cats, or apes. Whereas others, would be so complicated as to bugger reason, these would correspond to modules for the Vorlons or transhumans.

            Thus when Mr. Kosh wants to talk to Fido, he'll hear, 'hey, hey, hey you got a bone, hey?" and Mr. Kosh will reply, "<untranslatable> Arf."

            If you translated a conversation between Mr. Kosh and Mrs. Kosh, it could be translated, "sour electrons <untranslatable> each square circle of blue velocity."