Could We Ever Build a Universal Translator?

For most of us, Star Trek was our first introduction to a device that is generally known as a universal translator. This device gave two beings from different races the ability to speak with instantaneous translation.

Before Star Trek, there were many other science fiction tv shows and movies that used similar devices. To my knowledge, the first use of a universal translator was from a science fiction novella named “First Contact” written in 1945 by Murray Leinster.

For the most part, the universal translator would be a hand held device that you would speak into. Sometimes it was worn for convenience. The TARDIS from Doctor Who was its own universal translator using a telepathic field to translate.

Bacteria were used in Farscape, and who could forget the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Frankly, I’m not too keen on introducing a parasite into my body but if the result is instantaneous translation, well… knock me out first, would you?

In real life, the concept of a universal translator was, until recently, purely science fiction. At first, the closest thing we had to universal translators were hyperpolyglots. What is a hyperpolyglot you might ask? A hyperpolyglot is an individual who has a natural talent for learning different languages. There are recorded cases of people being introduced to a language they have never heard of before and being fluent in that language days after. Not only can hyperpolyglots learn languages quickly, but also they retain that language and any other they come in contact with.

A true hyperpolyglot is rare, although there are several lists on the Internet of well-known people who speak six or more languages alive today. Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, an Italian priest, was rumored to be able to read write and speak in up to seventy-two languages.

I’d like to think I’m fluent in English, although the more I write the less I am certain about that, and I am conversational in a couple other languages. Drop me off in Thailand and I will do well enough, although I will get funny looks from people concerning my grammar or not knowing the right word. The thought of being fluent in seventy-two languages makes my head hurt.

With the advent of the Internet and more recently the computing power in our cell phones, we are getting closer to a universal translator every day.

The oldest free online translator was Yes, they named it after the fish from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a novel, and radio series written by Douglas Adams. The site was purchased by Yahoo and was later given a Yahoo address. Sadly Babelfish was replaced by Bing Translator in 2012, and no longer exists as it once did.

Google Translate is currently the most commonly used translating web site followed by Bing Translate. One of the better apps used to translate is WordLens. WordLens was the first app that used real-time camera-based translations. Using the camera on your phone, the screen on your phone would translate the text. Google purchased WordLens in 2014.

All of these sites and apps are amazing, but they are far from perfect. Open Google translate right now. Go ahead I’ll wait… now, type in the first paragraph from your favorite novel. Change the settings so it translates into Arabic. Copy the translation and use that to translate directly back to English. It is astounding and funny how different the initial text and the twice-translated text are.

One of the major drawbacks to all of these websites and apps is the need to be tethered to Wi-Fi. Also, those methods of translating were never designed for two-way communication. When trying to have a conversation using a translating app, the interaction is clumsy and awkward at best.

ili bypasses those issues by not needing Wi-Fi and being able to translate with a speed of about 0.2 seconds. First of all, ili isn’t capitalized, and I know it looks awkward at the beginning of a sentence. But regardless of capitalization, not having to use Wi-Fi allows the device to be used no matter where you are. Also, having a fast translation speed makes the conversation much quicker.

However, not being connected to Wi-Fi limits the translations that can be stored on the device. The company clearly states that the device is for travel use and should not be relied on for medical, business, proper nouns, or slang.

ili currently is available to translate English, Chinese, and Japanese. The company is working on expanding into French, Thai, Korean, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic.

As of right now, the ili website states that the preorders are sold out. If you were lucky enough to get a preorder, it will probably be shipping later this year. The ili costs about $200.

In the next decade, I would assume that we might see translators that are more accurate and contain conversational translations in most languages. It’s possible that we could see a form of human universal translators within our life.

What about a truly universal translator? Could we ever have instant communication with aliens that we have never come in contact with before?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t ever see that happening.

Language is complicated, way more than just memorizing vocabulary and grammar. Sure, if you memorize the basics, you will be able to communicate. But you are not fluent in a language if you can’t use proper slang. Sarcasm is used in every language that I am aware of, however, it’s used differently in each. And what about body language? Several languages rely on the use of hand gestures to make a point. A universal translator would have to pick up on those gestures and have some way of translating that so we could understand.

Ants use a combination of pheromones, sounds (non-speech), and touch in order to communicate with one another. It might be hard to believe, but these are the most widely used forms of communication on our planet. Using full speech is pretty much limited to humans, and there are only about seven billion of us. It’s estimated that the number of ants in the world is somewhere around ten thousand trillion.

It’s not hard to imagine that an alien race could communicate like ants on our planet. A universal translator would have to account for all of this. The translator would need to be able to see light outside normal spectrums and hear sounds outside what we would consider normal. It would have to have sensors that could pick up very specific types of touch. Then, it would also have to be able to touch in very specific ways. It would have to be able to smell all types of chemicals. In order to reply with chemicals, our translator would have to be able to synthetically build those chemicals to release back to the host being we are trying to communicate with.

And that is simply to communicate with ants on our planet. One could only imagine how complex communication would be with an alien ant that shares intelligence similar to ours.

So it doesn’t look like a universal translator is ever possible. There are just too many forms of communication that would have to be built into one device. However, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that we could have communication devices to speak to intelligent aliens sometime in the future. And it is possible that those translation devices could learn a language faster than we could. But it would still take time after first contact to be able to communicate.

Going back to the TARDIS, is it possible that we could somehow develop a telepathic form of communication?

In a couple different studies, under controlled circumstances, science has been used to induce basic telepathic ability between lab rats and other lab animals. There have not yet been any human testing in this field, but it is possible that we could someday have humans that are capable of scientifically induced telepathic communication.

Even if we were able to communicate telepathically, we would still have to learn how to translate what we were hearing from the other being. Because of our brain’s plasticity, or ability to change and remap itself, the thought of food might be different in two different people using the same language. Add to this a different language and culture and the thought might not have any similarities. If we were able to communicate with an alien using telepathy, it would be a long slow process of learning.

I’m sure that I’ve missed something, but I can’t see a possible way that we would be able to communicate with an alien on first contact other than using math, colors, and other scientifically verified constants.

I can imagine how tense it will be as linguists work on communication while the worlds military watches for any sign of hostile intent. If the aliens are anything like us, we would be one misunderstanding away from a war that would be devastating for both sides.

What are your thoughts, I would really like to know what you think about the possibility of universal translators? Please communicate your thoughts on the matter.

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