The most important question I've ever asked
March 16, 2018 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Why, if there's a universal translator in Star Trek, do some words and phrases in alien languages go untranslated?

If there's a universal translator, wouldn't everything just get automatically translated? How does Worf sometimes swear in Klingon?

What about loan words? Would the universal translator recognize that a word or phrase is borrowed from another language, or would it want to automatically translate it? How would that even be figured out? Is that all part of the whole "translation matrix" process? Isn't that based on thought-patterns or some such, so wouldn't it just translate the underlying idea?

I've looked at Memory-Alpha, but shockingly they don't seem to address these important details. I would be very, very surprised if this question has never been asked or answered before.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There's a chart on pg. 101 of the TNG Technical Manual that shows how the translation matrix works and there's a lot of analysis of what's being said going on besides just linguistic. It looks like it would recognize if you switched to a different language for a word or two (e.g. cursing in Klingon) and treat it based on the context of the individual speaking it.
posted by griphus at 2:30 PM on March 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The joke answer is "bad writing," but it's probably not far from the truth if we soften it to "needs of the narrative." I think the acronym you're looking for -- which has been widely repurposed without alteration -- is YATI.

Seriously, though, there probably isn't an in-universe answer that makes any sense, because (a) Trek was never especially self-consistent even 50 years ago and (b) as with any especially long-running narrative, it's virtually impossible to maintain self-consistency even if you really, really want to.

They even sorta lampshade this in TNG with the oft-cited episode "Darmok" -- it's the one where the Enterprise runs into a previously-indecipherable race, and Picard figures out that they communicate only in allegory ("Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra").
posted by uberchet at 2:30 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Proper nouns would presumably get translates since I don't know what you'd translate them to. Also, some words simply don't have translations. Like, "poutine" is "poutine" in every language because it's an idiomatic local dish and is essentially a proper noun.

but yeah, it's really just to serve narrative needs.
posted by GuyZero at 2:32 PM on March 16, 2018

Response by poster: Oh yeah, I mean I know the actual explanation is that the writers are primarily concerned with the story and characters. I'm just wondering if and how this specific thing has been explained in the decades of Trek fandom (like dilithium, or the Klingon forehead thing). Or if it's just one of those things people kind of chuckle over -- I'd never heard the term YETI, but it's hilarious.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:35 PM on March 16, 2018

Best answer: I've thought (and complained good-naturedly) about this a lot over the years, and setting aside the fundamental "because the writing is inconsistent and serves story/viewer needs foremost" thing, there's arguments to be made for all sorts of little inconsistencies.

My personal headcanon on the use of non-"English" words in a translator context is that the speaker can use control words/gestures/preferences to limit the scope of translation. So when Worf says something in Klingon (or for that matter when Picard does), there's an unseen/unheard gestural inflection of some sort that tells the UT to suspend autotranslation for a phrase or word or until toggled back on. Or Worf has his translator set to ignore translation on a handful of Klingon formalities and greetings and oaths unless affirmatively assigned translation.

That kind of gestural control at a user level would permit a greater degree of agency of expression in a translator-driven setting and requires no more viewer imagination to accommodate than the baseline issue with translation itself (which is that, basically, we never experience the input on translation, the actual mouth shapes and word sounds coming out of speakers, only the translated product).

If I remember right, the original explanation of the UT was that it basically worked as a telepathic phenomenon, though I'm not sure if that survived into later canon or got handwaved away or what.

But, practically speaking, any sensible implementation of a translator—as near real-time machine translation audio following native speech—would make for sufficiently confusing and distracting television that it's very hard to make a logical case for the details of the device-of-convenience we get instead. "Look, everybody speaks Galactic at this point" would have been a simpler explanation, if only the show weren't premised on exploration of strange new worlds not likely to always be tied into the pan-galactic sociopolitical scene.
posted by cortex at 2:57 PM on March 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

There's always this.
posted by Marky at 2:59 PM on March 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is canon: Worf was raised by humans so he would be probably be speaking in a human language and occasionally switching into Klingon for swears, etc. Presumably, the translator detects this contextually and doesn't translate it to retain his intended effect.

I am making this up: Klingon specifically is one of the few alien language families that can be correctly pronounced by the human larynx/mouth and vice-versa. This coincidence enabled the Klingons to insert a clause into their treaty with the Federation that Klingon would be excluded from the translation matrix to preserve Klingon cultural and linguistic distinctiveness. Since one usually encounters this trope with Klingon speakers, this explains away 99% of the instances on the show. Contextual renderings of loanwords and code-switching can plausibly account for the rest.
posted by Krawczak at 3:15 PM on March 16, 2018 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Given a translator machine that will accurately make you hear in your language what I said in my own language, anyone speaking in a language not their own is presumably doing it for a reason other than the most basic communication needs. To display cultural knowledge and appreciation (i.e. let me look very cool because I speak Klingon) or to take advantage of words that don't translate well (eg shadenfreude) or culturally-specific nouns (eg poutine, gagh, bat'leth). So the translator would not auto-translate words said in a language that is not the speaker's native language(s)??
posted by aimedwander at 3:35 PM on March 16, 2018

Best answer: Ya know... I've never really thought about this, but this brings up some questions, which cortex began to allude to...

So, is the translated speech audible to everyone, in real time, as, again, cortex questions? So, is Worf speaking Klingon and having that translated into English when he's on the Enterprise or DS9? Or, perhaps even better, is Martok speaking Klingon when he visits DS9? What about when he is speaking privately with Worf as he did in many episodes? Are they both speaking Klingon without the aid of translators and the show translates for narrative convenience? Probably.

But, let's go back to Martok and have him speak to Sisko. Does he speak English there? If not, is his Klingon rendered into English audibly to him? First, it seems like that would be challenging to continue to think clearly when your speech is rendered into a language you don't know. If I imagine my own speech instantly rendered into, say, Mandarin, a language I do not speak or comprehend, I would probably have difficulty continuing to organize my thoughts. I might even doubt whether I said what I intended to say. It seems like that would also be a significant political challenge with the use of universal translators - all parties would have to trust that their intent was preserved in languages unfamiliar to them, as there is no sentient third party to reprimand for mistranslation.
posted by Slothrop at 3:40 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Now that I've read aimedwander's comment, it makes more sense that this is, say, an ear piece worn by the hearer. That should make it impossible then for any diegetic language heard by English-speaking characters to be rendered in any way but English, if we're being picky. Or, Worf's ability to defeat universal translator listening devices is a valuable tool for Trek spycraft.
posted by Slothrop at 3:43 PM on March 16, 2018

Best answer: I always figure it's something like idiom--"a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words." Ferinstance, knowing English grammar, and knowing what cats and dogs are, will not help you to understand the phrase "raining cats and dogs". I can imagine even a sophisticated translator struggling with that kinda stuff.

(How intelligent Star Trek computers are is up for debate. Sometimes they seem like strong AIs with access to enough data to effortlessly make tea out of thin air that's acceptable to English people. Other times they don't even understand context well enough to be able to tell when Data has turned evil and locked every ranking bridge officer in the bathroom so he can give them swirlies...)
posted by Sing Or Swim at 5:31 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: FWIW there's an episode of DS9 where Quark, Rom, and Nog have to fix their universal translators to be able to talk with some humans (I came this close to writing "hu-mans"), and they specifically describe it as a tiny device stuck deep in their ears.

But then the humans are able to understand them when the translators are fixed, so I guess it's also supposed to affect their speech towards other people? That raises the question of whether they're audibly speaking Ferengi or English, and I'm even more confused than I was to begin with.

As for untranslated statements, I like the ideas about certain phrases sounding untranslated because of some kind of gesture or idiom! The whole thing works based on your thought patterns, right? Nonverbal communication is very important, and I wonder if a universal translator would pick up on thought patterns that indicate nonverbal cues, so that the intention behind a certain statement distinguishes it as different from an apparently identical statement. Like, the actual Klingon vocabulary effectively acts as a set of extended English vocabulary and grammar that is synonymous with certain stuff in English...

But yeah, I feel like you only ever hear it with Klingons, so I could also get on board with it just being an exception for them.

I know this is ultimately inconsequential, but I like thinking about it, and I think it does bring up some interesting questions about linguistics and interpersonal/cross-cultural communication (at least to someone like me, who knows just enough about linguistics to be familiar with stuff like code switching and some of the theory around biligualism). Besides, if this were Star Wars there would be like ten novels and a comic book series about the best friend of the person who invented the universal translator.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:49 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have always wondered why Data is the only one who can understand his cat, Spot.
posted by terrapin at 6:49 AM on March 17, 2018

I just watched an episode of DS9 where one of the characters has the computer turn off the automatic translation for a recorded speech and re-translates it himself with an ear toward some of the nuances that aren't present in English but are in the original. That was the first time I can remember anyone on Star Trek admitting that the universal translator was anything other than perfect, since even the translations in Darmok are perfectly translating each word.

Entering the land of my own speculation, the language in that example is Vortese (or whatever), a new language to the Federation which the translator wouldn't have a huge corpus of, so I could imagine that there are bits of better known languages like Klingon that have been studied long enough to have been officially deemed untranslatable, and that in places like Starfleet, officers and educated people are expected to have some familiarity with bits of Klingon and Romulan, just like officials in the British Empire were expected to have some familiarity with small bits of untranslated Greek and Latin. I am also open to the possibility that Worf turns his off a lot because Worf is a huge dork with an entirely understandable feeling of inferiority regarding his Klingon-ness and wants to prove to everyone that he's speaking Klingon and not Russian or whatever his first language would have been.
posted by Copronymus at 9:52 PM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

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