Despite his reputation as a man of action, Captain James T. Kirk was always most effective as a man of rhetoric. Memes may show him throwing rocks at lizardmen or sporting a torn tunic, but the true climax of many an episode of Star Trek was almost always a speech. Causing a computer to destroy itself through a trap of Socratic logic. Convincing a goateed Spock to upend a corrupt and illogical social order. Television Kirk was a master of assessing a situation and (more often than not) finding the right thing to say.
“Metamorphosis,” the ninth entry of Star Trek’s bell-weather second season, threw diplomat Kirk a sizeable wrinkle. En route via shuttlecraft to a planet on the brink of war, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Commissioner Nancy Hedford are abducted in space a noncorporeal cloud-being and stranded on the planetoid Gamma Canaris N. There, they meet Zephram Cochrane, the famed inventor of warp drive who had been taken the century before and given youth and immortality. Cochrane reveals that a being he had named The Companion brought them there to assuage his request for human company on the deserted planetoid. This fact does not sit well with the erstwhile captain. With Hedford dying of a terminal disease and a war to stop, Kirk decides that he must somehow communicate with The Companion and state their case for being allowed to leave. Cochrane is skeptical. The wayward inventor can communicate with the entity, but only through a telepathic link initiated by the Companion itself. How is Kirk, perpetual solver of the impossible, going to bridge this seemingly insurmountable gap?
It’s within the confines of this trap that the ill-fated Gene L. Coon’s gentle meditation on the nature of relationships transforms into an important piece of Trek lore. The viewer notices Spock making an adjustment to the interior grooves of a small metal tube. Cochrane, ever the inquisitive scientist, asks for an explanation of how the device works. “There are certain universal ideas and concepts common to all intelligent life,” Kirk explains. “This device instantaneously compares the frequency of brainwave patterns, selects those ideas in concepts it recognizes, and then provides the necessary grammar.”
“And,” Spock adds while reassembling the device, “it translates its findings into English.”
Thus marks the first appearance of the device that has become known in Trek circles as the universal translator. As Federation technology goes, it remains obscure beyond the most hardcore of the Star Trek fanbase. Writers and scientists have moved mountains in attempting to explain how the more prescient warp drive and transporter could work, inventing technical backstories intended to keep up with perpetually changing scientific theories. Michael Okuda and Rick Steinberg, who served as technical consultants for Star Trek: The Next Generation and later authored the popular TNG Technical Manual, even invented a device called the “Heisenberg Compensator” to address a lingering doubt about the viability of transporter technology based on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics. (When Okuda was asked to explain how the compensators worked in a 1994 interview, he replied with a Groucho-esque “they work just fine, thank you”).
By contrast, the universal translator has not been subject to such intense technical scrutiny. Aside from moments in which its lack of presence manifests (mainly as some kind of mechanical failure), it exists as a technological phantasm. To use a biological metaphor, the universal translator is one of the ship’s involuntary processes, no more intrusive to everyday activity than the neurons of the main computer or the respiration of the life support systems.
Unlike Star Trek’s other far-flung technological possibilities, though, the universal translator does have the benefit of near plausibility in the real world. The recent release of translation devices like Logobar’s ili and the Kickstarter-funded Transay have promised a new bright future for transcending language barriers in interpersonal communication (with mixed results). And while the viability and utility of these devices are called into question, their mere existence points to a near future in which easy communication across the barriers of language is not a complete fantasy.
This future promising the ease of communication through technological mediation seems idealistic enough. But like every mechanical innovation, the universal translator is Janus faced beyond issues of feasibility. And the possibility of this technology becoming as widespread as the smartphone in the near future necessitates a series of thorny questions regarding this issue of cultural impact. What are the consequences of a machine that promises instantaneous translation of not only words but also ideas and concepts? Have these consequences already started to manifest from merely representing such a device on a program that has become synonymous with an idealized future for humanity? And what meaning does a universal translator carry in an era where the association of language with identity has become more potent and potentially destructive to the very global institutions and initiatives that underpin the social philosophy that Star Trek has perpetuated?
Although Coon was the first to write the universal translator into an episode of Star Trek, he could not claim credit as its inventor. In fact, the issue of representing different languages on the show was taken up prior to writing and shooting the first pilot, 1964’s “The Cage.” In the draft proposal for the series that creator Gene Roddenberry wrote to pitch to network executives, he mentions an intention to establish a “telecommunicator” worn by each crew member that instantaneously translates spoken language into something intelligible. By the time the series went into production, this concept was dropped due to concerns of feasibility. Jerry Sohl, who wrote the “Corbomite Maneuver” (third in the series to be produced), mentioned in an interview that by an early point in the series, writers and directors worked under the assumption that “everyone did speak English.” This seems a necessary compromise, given the spartan circumstances under which the show was made. But this decision also sets up the use of the translator in “Metamorphosis” as an instrument utilized when all other options for dialogue are off the table.
That the issue of language was of such concern to the creators held significance for the later development of the universal translator. The device may have been conceived as a convenient storytelling device to avoid the problem of representing the languages of multiple cultures in a script. But taking the concept of real-world technological application seriously was novel territory in science fiction television and film of that era. Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic foray into astral realism was still several years away at the time Star Trek was first produced. This made the show both groundbreaking and solitary in its attempt to explain its gadgetry with at least a veneer of technical precision.
The lesson was not lost upon the next generation, as it were. When the Star Trek universe was revived for television during the 1980s, the idea of an ever-present universal translator mediating the gaps in linguistic diversity came back on the table. The aforementioned Technical Manual contains a section describing the design and usage of the universal translator on the Enterprise 1701-D. Here, it is referred to it as a “program” in the ship’s computer designed to analyze samples of language and create a communication framework based on a set of universal, structural aspects perceived to be inherent in the concept of language. Those aspects include “symbology, syntax, usage patterns, vocabulary, and cultural factors,” which combine together to create the means for basic exchange in a matter of minutes. The implication is that once enough data has been accumulated on a given language, the translator can facilitate communication of complex concepts with relative ease. As long as the crew has access to the computer, either on-ship or through their communication badges, the program does its work.
The seed of the assumption that every interaction between intergalactic species takes place through the translator was further reinforced in the early 2000s on Star Trek: Enterprise. One of the character arcs for communications officer Hoshi Sato regarded her role in programming the first universal translator for everyday use on Starfleet vessels. In the episode “Breaking the Ice,” Hoshi provides some context for the program in answering a child’s question about how the crew speaks to aliens. She begins her response by saying the translator is “like an alien dictionary with hundreds of languages programmed into it,” before detailing the pitfalls of language acquisition from unknown sources. Again, her framing of the translator as primarily an “alien dictionary” implies that once the hard work of acquisition is complete, the system remains active to supplement future interactions with those species.
These examples from more contemporary iterations of Star Trek suggest that the philosophical underpinning of the universal translator changed very little from its first incarnations, even if the employment of the technology itself changed a great deal. As such, it is worth going back to Kirk’s original explanation to Cochrane (and the audience) in “Metamorphosis” as a conceptual benchmark.
Philosopher Rick Hanley has noted that Kirk’s recourse to “universal ideas and concepts” and the “frequency of brainwave patterns” expressed in “Metamorphosis” was terminology commonly associated with rubrics from the field of psycholinguistics. While this term had been in use since the 1930s, Star Trek coincided with a popular explosion of psycholinguistic concepts based on the writings of Noam Chomsky during the 1960s. Chomsky famously theorized that there must be some kind of innate ability within human consciousness to grasp and extrapolate the complex features of language that don’t clearly manifest through social interactions. This idea of innateness suggested that some tangible, homogeneous root for all linguistic concepts could be found if one could dig deep enough into the human psyche. Once found, the development of all language could be extrapolated based on those inherent dynamics.
Since their heyday, Chomskian ideas about language have gathered more than a few critical reactions, some of which form the basis for modern critiques about the viability of the universal translator. One of the more potent criticisms draws from the older semiotic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the very figures that Chomsky was writing against. The most pertinent Sassurean axiom is that the linguistic sign (the relationship between a word and the particular object or concept it references) is arbitrary. By this, Saussure meant that there exists no underlying set of rules that dictate how signs develop across all languages. Were this true, the ability of the universal translator to extrapolate the grammar of an unknown language based on analysis of its construction of signs would be fatally compromised. Farzad Ehsani and others, in an essay about the feasibility of universal translation, points out that the 6,000+ currently languages in use on planet Earth would present a semiotic nightmare for any programmer. And this doesn’t even account for the exponential problems that galactic diversity would add to the equation. You can’t even assume that the inhabitants of one planet, whether Vulcan or Andoria, would all speak the same language, much less guarantee the intelligibility of all people on all habitable planets.
This semiotic issue formed the lynchpin of the fifth season TNG episode “Darmok,” one of the more memorable hours of that particular series. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is abducted and stranded on a planet with the captain of a Tamarian ship, a culture whose language is based entirely upon metaphor and allegory relevant to their homeworld. Picard’s difficulties establishing a dialogue with his counterpart are understandably frustrating. He’s not a linguist, nor does he have access to the universal translator on the ship to help him out. But back on the Enterprise, the computer has just as much difficulty making sense of the language, even with the translator programming at its disposal. Because the Tamarian language uses signs in a way that stymies syntactical analysis in the way the computer is designed to do, it and the crew are as helpless as Picard. Only when the captain figures out their semiotic system for himself – through the trial and error of interpersonal interaction – are they able to communicate and resolve the crisis.
Another issue arises when considering the conceptual legacy of figures like Ludwig Wittgenstein and the British “ordinary language” philosophers like J.L. Austin (another group of figures anathema to Chomskian ideas about innateness). The important contribution of these thinkers lies in their concept that the meaning of words is not just socially constructed, but dependent on the level of everyday speech. Even if the problems of semiotic construction could be overcome by a sophisticated computer program, the rudimentary vocabulary it creates would still suffer from the multiple meanings individual words can carry, and how those differ depending on the social and cultural context. Anyone who has attempted to employ a second language amongst native speakers can attest to the sense of embarrassment and helplessness this can cause, where the same word or phrase can mean many different things depending upon how it is used. When amplified by the diplomatic protocols and tense interpersonal standoffs constantly portrayed in the Star Trek universe, the potential ubiquity of the universal translator as the basis for all interaction becomes further compromised.
Again, TNG addresses this issue, albeit with far more subtlety. In “The Mind’s Eye,” Picard is having an argument with a Klingon colony governor over the discovery of weapons that appear to have been provided by the Federation to local rebels. The conversation, to the audience, takes place in English, implying the use of the translator through Picard’s communicator badge. Yet when goaded by the governor over the potential strategic gains that a Klingon withdrawal from the planet would entail, Picard slowly approaches him and responds with a terse, untranslated epithet in Klingon, delivered with culturally appropriate rhythm and gesturing. “You swear well, Picard. You must have Klingon blood in your veins,” the governor responds, once again in English, respecting the human’s display of the Klingon virtues of directness and force.
Watching this interaction, can you plausibly believe that he would have complimented Picard with such grudging affection had the translator been doing all of the work? Beyond the obvious chasm between word and mouth that would appear on-screen and between the characters, Picard switching to Klingon serves a tangible narrative and characterizing purpose, both in context of a television show and in the lived world of Star Trek. It shows his diplomatic skill, indirectly references his prior role as the Klingon Arbiter of Succession, and provides a dramatic moment upon which the emotional gravity of the scene is anchored. All of this meaning is lost the moment you assume that a translation device is perpetually operating while Picard and the governor banter back and forth.
If you assume that the universal translator is always working, even if unseen and unheard, then the consequence is that the world of Star Trek can never transcend the artifice of television. To represent the translator in its actual function would erase the subtle aspects of interpersonal interaction that drive drama, humor, and emotional meaning. Interaction would become boring to watch and dysfunctional in practice. A perpetual universal translation becomes a translation that fails on all accounts.
Why, then, hold to the fantasy of perpetual, universal translation if it undermines the sense of realism on such a fundamental level? Because an equally problematic alternative arises from the answer. If the universal translator isn’t an omnipresent force in the world of Star Trek, it must be assumed that English serves as the institutional bureaucratic language of the United Federation of Planets and that most interactions seen in Star Trek occur on that basis. (Remember, Spock even implies this idea in “Metamorphosis” when summing up Kirk’s explanation of the universal translator).
I can’t speak for other planets, but on Earth, historical instances of creating linguistic homogeneity for the purpose of bureaucratic efficiency has been fraught with problems. Any scholar of empire – whether Roman, British, or Habsburg – can attest to that. Most of all, the practical use of English (or any one language) across the Federation undermines the vision of a culturally diverse future as the heart of the Star Trek universe. If the issue of everyone speaking English can be framed as a pragmatic compromise of television production, rather than a compromise in world building, then the fantasy of future diversity can reasonably perpetuate. The universal translator becomes an easy way to avoid the hegemonic problem that the construction and enactment of a bureaucratic language entails. It’s at heart an elegant technological wallpaper to cover the cracks in translating a fictional veneer into an actually lived world.
Star Trek may be science fiction, but the idea that language is a mechanism of power isn’t abstract at all and carries a great deal of consequence for people across the globe. That Star Trek as a whole has, for the most part, avoided these issues of language reflects the ideas of its creators as much as the future it imagines. Consider that the bulk of the Star Trek universe has been produced during times in which the corrosive aspects of nationalism, reflected through a desire to make language and culture synonymous, were waning or subsumed. The rise of Counterculture in the 1960s (original Star Trek) and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (Next Gen, Deep Space Nine, Voyager) reflected separate mass movements toward an idealistic future apart from the sectarian divides of the past. But the current moment is shadowed by the rise of Trumpism in the United States and ethnocentric authoritarian movements throughout Europe. If our vision of the future is invariably tied to the lived moment in which we consume it, then a future where everyone speaks the same language – even for the sake of intergalactic bureaucracy – becomes foreboding and nervous.
In essence, both realizations of why we hear English in the Star Trek universe fall into a thorny trap of essentialism. If English is the bureaucratic language of the Federation, then this begets the question of why that particular language is used and not another, and what means were used to promote that language as the lingua prima. If the universal translator is ubiquitous, and individual languages are preserved in social situations, then we are presented with a future in which the need to actually understand the links between language and culture becomes irrelevant to communication. Machines will do this work, making the task of empathy and understanding between different people at best more difficult, if not impossible. Neither interpretation seems to embody a broader philosophical humanism that Star Trek represents.
I don’t think that the creators and producers of the original Star Trek can (or should) be held responsible for these implications. They were too busy dumpster diving for set accouterments on the Desilu lot to worry about the unwitting philosophical implications of the universe they were creating. But it’s notable that these concerns are creeping into the consciousness of the latest group of showrunners. During the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, there’s an intriguing scene where series protagonist Lt. Commander Burnham is using a translator to eavesdrop on a group of Klingons while infiltrating their ship. When discovered, the Klingon general Kol reacts with anger and disgust. Not just because he’s found a spy, but because of the device she uses to understand them. The divergent interpretations of the translator offered by the two characters are telling. While Burnham thought of the device as a means of peaceful communication, Kol considers it a means to undermine the unique cultural trace of the Klingon language.
Framing the universal translator as a device carrying potentially dire implications for cultural interaction instead of a neutral technology is a step in a more nuanced direction. It’s a tacit acknowledgment of the dangers outlined by one of the most well-known references to the dark side of universal translation in popular culture. In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a notable passage explains the impact of the Babel fish – a creature that, once placed in the ear, makes other species instantly intelligible. In the universe that Adams created, this creature had the unfortunate effect of “caus[ing] more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
It’s a prescient warning to keep in mind for both the Star Trek universe and our own when contemplating the possibility that all it takes to solve the perpetual problems of language is mere widgetry. Technology may eventually allow us to travel at speeds faster than light. When arriving, we might defy the objections of Werner Heisenberg and move from ship to surface with incomparable ease. Once face-to-face, though, the hard and time-consuming work of understanding will remain a challenge for the fleshy machinery of the brain and the empathetic gadgetry of the heart.