Language in Science Fiction, or Why Universal Translators are Cheap

Is this thing on?

It’s another day aboard the Enterprise, and somehow Captain Kirk and the gang stumble across a species no one has ever heard of. Hailing frequencies open, and the leader of the aliens greets them—in perfect English. The day is saved by the Universal Translator!

When I was an exchange student in Germany, I often wished I had something like the Universal Translator. I went over there confident that my three years of high school German had prepared me, only to find out the shocking depths of what I didn’t know. I sat in classes mutely staring at the teacher, or doodling on the graph paper the German kids used like Americans use white lined paper. I was bitterly lonely.

But over time, I started picking it up. I learned enough to get by. Kind people taught me, as did a week over holidays when I was left alone in a drafty castle with only a few Russian boys for company. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Russian, so the only way we could communicate was through broken German. My mind started working in the ways German grammar demands, and I grew.

I read a great post about language in fantasy by the astonishingly prolific Kameron Hurley (who is the entire internet this month, I swear) and it got me thinking about how science fiction deals with language. The universal translator is a handy tool, sure, but Trek often used it as a crutch to ignore the real differences between peoples. One of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that sticks with me is “Darmok,” where the translator can’t cope with a people who essentially speak in memes, so Picard actually has to learn how they think.

Too much science fiction paints us a future where everyone speaks the same language, like Galactic Basic or Standard or something along those lines—or employs a translation device like a Babel Fish that essentially does the same thing. This completely ignores the incredible linguistic diversity of humankind, and erases very real differences. I have trouble believing in a future where everyone speaks the same language.

In the Extrahumans series, most people speak the same language because the fascist Confederation has essentially imposed English (the Confederation is based in Australia) as the sole official language. It’s all part of the Reformists’ “All Humanity Under One Roof” policy, which I’d really like to actually include in a book someday. It’s intended to flatten out a lot of differences that they believe needlessly divide people. Speaking another language then becomes an act of defiance.

In the Grayline Sisters books, I wanted to show some of the linguistic diversity of humankind. The Graylines speak a variant of English because they grew up in Gideon, an isolated country whose language is a relic of its New Zealander and American founders. But the rest of Nea is far more diverse. Ventanan Spanish is by far the most commonly spoken language because of the economic and political clout of the city of La Ventana and the country of Ventana Plains. Marta and her sisters all know a good amount of Ventanan Spanish, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to function anywhere else on Nea. Novans speak hundreds of other languages, including Neustaater German (which by the time of the story is much more like a mix of Portuguese and several other South American languages with a German flavor than anything else) and the Turkish of Kütüryë that Nihal curses in.

People on Nea’s sister planet Adastre speak many languages as well, but Adastran English dominates there even more than Ventanan Spanish does on Nea. Gideon English and Adastran English are mutually intelligible, but are very different dialects. 300 years of linguistic drift have done their work.

Haven is another mix; many people there speak either Ventanan Spanish or Adastran English because Novans and Adastrans colonized Haven, but most people on Haven speak a form of Mandarin Chinese as their first language.

I really wanted to show this kind of linguistic diversity in the Grayline Sisters series, and I love it when science fiction in general takes language into account instead of papering it over. It’s just one more way we can make sure that our future worlds are as varied and interesting as our present one.

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5 Responses to “Language in Science Fiction, or Why Universal Translators are Cheap”

  1. Paul Weimer February 12, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

    I think a lot of series SF avoids the translator problem because it takes TIME.

    Consider Stargate the series–the first season has Daniel playing translator a lot, and then they stopped. It took too much :Story time: to be practical in the confines of a network tv series.

  2. Susan Jane Bigelow February 12, 2014 at 10:02 pm #

    This is very true–I kind of like how Enterprise actually had Ensign Sato be a translator for everyone, I wish they’d done more on that, but I appreciate that it took up a lot of time. So much easier to walk onto a planet and everyone conveniently speaks English!

  3. Muccamukk February 13, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    I don’t know if you ever read Ann Crispin’s YA series Starbridge, but linguistics was a huge plot point there. Running into aliens and not speaking the language or understanding the culture then having bad things happen. One book had bird people whose voices were so loud they’d blow human eardrums, also they saw ultraviolet, and incorporated it into written language. The series ends up founding a school for cultural interpreters from all planets, where the lead professor is a telepathic patch of moss. I loved that series when I was younger, though it is a little heavy handed rereading it recently.

    I’m actually having trouble thinking of another SF example where language was a major plot point. There’re French and Greek cultural minorities in Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, but Miles speaks all the languages anyway, so it doesn’t make much difference (as of Memory, which is as far as I’ve gotten).

    A fantasy example that I really liked was in Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells, where two sets of characters spend the first half of the book not speaking the same language, at all, and having to nonetheless work out escaping from demons and sailing ships. Then they find a communication spell, but I loved that first sequence.

  4. Nenya February 13, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

    There is always CJ Cherryh for science fiction involving multiple languages. The Foreigner books kind of take that thing where TV shows ignore language and flip it on its head: the entire story is about an interpreter and the language/cultural differences he runs into. Though sadly we don’t learn much about *his* language school–except that it was insufficient for what he needed (despite being the collected knowledge of the humans on the subject of aliens over ~200 years) and he had to learn on the job.

    The Chanur books also have language stuff–they do have a computer translator of sorts, but it’s spotty and kind of like future-Google-translate than anything, and of course it breaks down entirely when they alien species who use it run into humans who they don’t have any vocab or grammar for.

    I feel like it takes skill to work in languages and linguistics into a story and also have other plots (as the person said above, on TV especially it takes so much *time*), but it really does flesh out the world and make it seem more real. It also makes it more natural to bring up cultural differences, I think, rather than have everyone speak English but be confused by “nibbling to death by cats” or whatever.

  5. Muccamukk February 13, 2014 at 5:35 pm #

    I guess Babylon 5 was another show that had different languages, especially Minbari, which people spoke, but mostly everyone just spoke English and didn’t have translation issues. Ivanova learning Minbari and Delenn’s motorbutt conversation being exceptions.

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