Mental Impressions - an Opinion Log
Mental Impressions -
an Opinion Log
Observations on media and the mind...

Picture of a man scratching his head.

Star Trek. We all love it. Not to mention the incredible food replicators, holodecks, transporter, and even the Klingon named Worf. There's a thematic logic attached to all of them. Granted the logic is far-fetched, but it's essentially plausible. Even the so-called Warp drive: perhaps Einstein was mistaken, and perhaps faster-than-light loopholes do exist. Okay, fine. But there's one thing I could NEVER quite swallow. That's the Universal Translator.

Think about it, if you dare. The thing is omnipresent in almost every episode, and it's capable of discerning the inherent commonalities presumed to exist in millions of far-flung dialects, based on some vague principle of universal speech patterns, abstract linguistic symbols, and... blah blah blah. (According to one crude explanation, brain wave patterns associated with certain word-phrases are detected and translated, but this idea introduces further problems, as shown later.)

Imagine the difficulties in the most basic details of such an operation. How, actually, would the Translator truly work? THINK ABOUT IT! For the sake of argument, let's suppose the instrument emitted a "subspace" telemetric probe of some sort, penetrating into the computer storage files of an extra-terrestrial's language database. Such an instant probe would have to research the alien contact's computer circuits in the manner of a researcher combing through an alien school library. The next step would be to locate the encoded "language picture" files stored in the database and then to associate this data with symbolic script, pairing up the meanings and sounds and images. The mechanics of this remote assimilation would presumably occur inside of the raided computer. The impossible nature of this task scorches the imagination. Using such a far-reaching probe would be like using a magic wand. The scope of its omniscience would be a game-changer, a weapon in its own right.

But it gets worse. What if no alien storage computer resides in sight? (In most ST contact episodes, human-alien communication occurs face-to-face.) On the cuff, the human-implanted gadget has to calculate an immediate translation of the guttural grunts of another species into the King's (or the Captain's) impeccable English. Common speech patterns are one thing. But to accomplish a specific translation of this kind it would have to probe into the mind of the alien -- the alien's hippocampus, perhaps -- to glean the thoughts associated with certain grunts. And, for the love of God -- if it could do that, you'd have a virtual mind-reading machine. The plot of every episode would have to be rewritten to accomodate such madness.

There's no plausible recourse to explain the Translator. No "inherent" speech patterns could be deciphered to accomplish this trick. No way UuuLargh Biura Vaa could be parsed through "common abstract symbols" into the eloquent "Silence your dog, Captain Picard!"

On the other hand (continued) ...

Return to