Saturday, December 13, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (universal translators, part I)

Ever notice how many SF stories, TV shows, and movies conveniently assume Our Intrepid Explorer can easily communicate with Never Before Seen Alien? Sometimes there's no attempt to explain it -- of course everyone in the Pegasus Galaxy speaks English (Stargate Atlantis). Never mind that their ancestors came from Earth before English came about, and often from halfway around the globe from the land became known as England.

Both parties speaking English in a First Contact situation certainly moves along the plot, but it demands much willing suspension of disbelief. The SFnal workaround is the universal translator (UT). This is a computer program that translates between any two languages. Some UTs require varying amounts of exposure to the new language, others can translate immediately.

(Before I continue ... there are many excellent stories that forthrightly tackle the challenges of establishing communications. A particularly mind-stretching favorite of mine is "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang.)

Is a UT plausible, or is it only a trope to move along plots?

For this post, let's take the easy case. That's the know-it-all UT. It knows each new language's vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and idioms (among other things) before ever encountering them. The implication is that there is a small number of meta-languages, encompassing all possible languages. With the shortest of snippets as a sample, the UT can derive the special case used by the newly encountered species.

Let's consider two species.

Case A, human. Language is constructed of a few tens of sounds (phonemes) used in combinations. Basic concepts reflect sight as the primary way of experiencing the world.

Case B, the aquatic hive-mind slime molds of Rigel III. They emit and absorb complex biochemicals to sense their environment and communicate. Information is encoded in (among other things) the types of molecules, concentration levels, and concentration gradients. Reactions with ambient chemicals can degrade communications. Amorphous blobs that the Rigelians are, they have neither fronts nor backs nor sides. Their sense of direction shifts with the currents, tides, and rogue waves.

How will the human-built "universal" translator fare when Our Intrepid Explorer first meets the Rigelians?

The instant-on, no-training-required UT? Surely a trope.


Unknown said...

A story along the lines you mention that is well worth reading is Dean Ing's marvelous Lost in Translation, which is available in his Firefight Y2K.

"Every child knew that the quasimammals on Tau Ceti's major planet had been nuts about communication. Their color sense had been so acute that the Cetians could leave a complex message with a single dot of color. Hue, shape, size, sequence of spots; all affected Cetian message content."


"The Proximans had disappeared several million years ago; so long ago that it took two expeditions to discover remains of a race that had vanished, like the Cetians, suddenly. They'd been sea-dwelling invertebrates with enough savvy to build pearlescent craft that explored their land-masses, then build others that took them into orbit. We hadn't a clue to Proximan language until a xenologist suspected there was meaning in all the bubbles."

"I mean, of course, the bubble generators that were still blurping away in the coral cities Proximans had built. ... it was Howie who thought to run analyses of covariance of the size, frequency, gas composition, and absorption rates of the bubbles. Those little isotope-powered bubble generators, he figured, hadn't been put there just for decor. And Howie was right. They'd been for entertainment and news; Proximan media broadcasts."

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks, Ed. That story sounds intriguing.