Universal Translators: The Future’s Gift or Curse for Language Junkies?

(photo by www.scps.nyu.edu)

I’m a big Trekkie. Not so big that I’m willing to drop $5,000 to buy the Captain’s Chair weekend package for the annual Las Vegas Star Trek Convention, plus what I’d spend on a universe accurate costume, but big enough. What I love about Star Trek is that it paints a more optimistic future for the human race. One where there is no more poverty, starvation; where you can pursue any dream because there aren’t things like money or bigotry to keep you from being the best person you want to be (or at least on future Earth. Other planets are a different story). Plus there are some gorgeous alien men. The one thing that really bugs me about this adventurous, idyllic future for us terriens  is that no one has to learn a foreign language anymore. Why not? Because of a pesky thing called a universal translator.

IMG_20130330_112052_820(Proof of Trekki-ness. Here I am as Seven of Nine with Data)

The universal translator has gone through many versions. First, it was as a Hitachi Wand looking thing and part of the ship’s comm system. Then it was either an earpiece or an internal piece implanted in the brain (it isn’t too clear) à la Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Although I understand how useful it is when you meet a new species to be able to communicate with them immediately, but it always bugged me. The universal translator took away the need to learn a foreign language in the 24th century. For a foreign language junkie, this is incredibly stinky! It’s the one thing that I don’t like about the Star Trek universe. A language is so telling about a culture and it’s a key point in learning about another group of people. Using a machine to translate is never completely accurate. If you don’t believe me, try using Google Translate to see how it doesn’t work well; just make sure you don’t use it on your French homework.

trek(First incarnation of the universal translator. photo by filmjunk.com)

I’ve often wondered how many cultural nuances would be lost in translation by using a device such as the universal translator. I had almost given up on the joy of foreign language learning in the 24th century, until recently watching an episode of Enterprise. Enterprise is the last Star Trek TV series made that ran in the early 2000s. The show is supposed to be a prologue to the entire Star Trek universe. It traces the very first deep space assignment. What was a pleasant surprise in this otherwise dull show is a scene in the mess hall between the ship’s doctor and the communication officer. The communications officer (CO) was learning and practicing the doctor’s native language. He is a different species. It was a fantastic scene as she was not using the then brand new technology of the universal translator. This CO was actually speaking and making mistakes in a foreign language. It was such a joy to my inner language nerd to see this scene. It was in watching this scene that I realized why I enjoyed it so much. In the future, the solution to miscommunication is not better teaching techniques and access to native speakers, it’s to eliminate learning a foreign language altogether.

ds9crew(Different species means different language and cultures. photo by www.popcults.com)

As a foreign language enthusiast, I believe that a universal translator is a curse and not a gift to the future. I can only hope that this blog post somehow, someway gets into a database in the 22nd century and helps people realize the importance of foreign language learning in connecting with new alien people and cultures. To boldly go where no one has gone before doesn’t just refer to space travel; it can also refer to the experience of speaking new and alien languages.


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