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Trek Tech Pass me the quantum flux regulator, will you?

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Old January 30 2014, 07:10 AM   #1
Brannigan
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How does the universal translator work?

I've been watching Voyager and the question of how the universal translator works came to me. Voyager is 70K light years from the Alpha Quadrant and is thus encountering aliens that the Federation is unaware of (at least until the Borg or Q). However, Voyager's crew are able to easily communicate with these new species.
Now my understanding of the universal translator is that it only translates programmed languages. We have seen where it doesn't work with unknown aliens (TOS Arena and TNG Darmok come to mind) and even common alien languages (Klingon in ST VI, which is odd considering the crew prior to that never had any problems understanding the Klingons). If we assume this, than Voyager should not be able to communicate with these newly discovered aliens in the Delta Quadrant.
On the other hand if the universal translator acts as a sort of deciphering program of languages (e.g say based on tone) than Voyager would be able to communicate in some fashion with new species. However, I suspect that there would still be some kind of delay as translators between Voyager and the alien deciphered the language. I have not seen any kind of delay in question and response.
So that being said, what is and how does the universal translator work?
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Old January 30 2014, 07:30 AM   #2
C.E. Evans
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

I've always viewed that it takes a sample of a language and then finds comparisons in its database. I think the majority of languages have familiar structures the UT recognizes and it's more an issue of expanding the database of words and/or symbols in a particular language (the larger the sample, the quicker it can be translated--and UTs seem to work incredibly fast in most cases, IMO).

When approaching an alien world, starships may tap into communication satellites prior to entering orbit or scan its surface to find settlements and listen in to what is being spoken by the indigenous population to gain samples (I don't see why starships can't have microphones as part of their sensor arrays).
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Old January 30 2014, 07:46 AM   #3
Nob Akimoto
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

Evidently linguists in Star Trek have tapped into the Universal Grammar that might at least be innate to the structures of humanoid brains/sapience.
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Old January 30 2014, 07:42 PM   #4
bountifulboxesjeg
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

There is actually a holographic emitter on each badge that makes everyone's mouths look like they're speaking the appropriate language... that or televison magic makes the universal translator work.
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Old January 30 2014, 11:05 PM   #5
Crazy Eddie
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

Brannigan wrote: View Post
I've been watching Voyager
That was your FIRST mistake.

and the question of how the universal translator works came to me. Voyager is 70K light years from the Alpha Quadrant and is thus encountering aliens that the Federation is unaware of (at least until the Borg or Q). However, Voyager's crew are able to easily communicate with these new species.
Now my understanding of the universal translator is that it only translates programmed languages. We have seen where it doesn't work with unknown aliens (TOS Arena and TNG Darmok come to mind) and even common alien languages (Klingon in ST VI, which is odd considering the crew prior to that never had any problems understanding the Klingons). If we assume this, than Voyager should not be able to communicate with these newly discovered aliens in the Delta Quadrant.
On the other hand if the universal translator acts as a sort of deciphering program of languages (e.g say based on tone) than Voyager would be able to communicate in some fashion with new species. However, I suspect that there would still be some kind of delay as translators between Voyager and the alien deciphered the language. I have not seen any kind of delay in question and response.
So that being said, what is and how does the universal translator work?
This was the first piece of data in my (as of now, sort-of-abandoned) "Cutting Room Hell" theory: that Star Trek deliberately and routinely omits HUGE chunks of time in between otherwise smooth cuts, mainly because they are boring or have nothing to do with the story itself.

Three really good examples of this:
- HAILING -
Data: "The alien vessel is approaching at one quarter impulse power."
Picard: "Hail them."
Worf: <Presses button. Beep, chirp...> "No response."

One should insert a break of, say, two or three minutes between the pressing of that button and the "No response" report. Otherwise, it seems like you're just calling the other guy and then hanging up in less time than it would physically take for THEIR communications officer to utter the words "We're being hailed." That two or three minute delay would be the tense couple of minutes where nothing happens and nobody really says anything, minutes where the captain and crew are waiting to see what's going to happen next.

- SENSOR SCANS -
Worf: "Captain! Earth!"
Data: <Presses button> "The atmosphere contains high concentrations of methane, carbon monoxide and flourine."
Picard: "Life signs?"
Data: <Presses another button> "Popularion approximately nine billion. All borg."

Even with 24th century sensors, it should take substantially more than five and a half seconds to scan an entire planet, analyze its atmospheric composition, count the number of life forms on it and then determine as a matter of fact that all nine billion of those life forms are borg. For that matter, unless Data's operations console has been programmed with the script for the movie, it's gonna take him ALOT longer than that to read all of that sensor data and find the answer to Picard's question.

So here too, we have missing time: insert, say, half an hour at least of sensor scans, maybe a probe launch or two, of Enterprise sitting there in the temporal wake trying to figure out what the hell just happened to Earth. That also adds some believability to the exposition after the fact: instead of simply pulling random information out of their asses that just happens to be exactly correct, this gives them time to spend half an hour or so thinking about it, maybe checking the library computer for similar cases to find out for sure. All of which, once again, would be boring to watch.


- FIRST CONTACT SITUATIONS -
Voyager is the worst offender by far since they are constantly running in to inexplicably hostile, mindlessly xenophobic alien-of-the-week species that they can always talk to pretty much instantly. In this case, we should precede these contact situations with an incredibly boring briefing by the ship's communications officer (whose job has become so boring that he no longer even has a bridge position) about a gamut of alien transmissions the ship has been receiving lately; the officer has traced those transmissions to their origin, identified known patterns and a few dozen known dialects and categorized them in a class based on their transfer protocols, frequency and modulation; a translation matrix has been constructed and a best-fit translation will be available in twelve hours, which will allow them to fine-tune the translators once further contact is established. The communications officer then plots a list of known transmission sources for the identified language class on a chart, which gives an estimate of the "territory" of the alien race and where they're likely to be found.

These kinds of briefings would happen probably three or four times a week on a ship like Voyager, but because they're in a hurry to get home, they don't have time to initiate the usual first-contact procedures that might involve hacking their database for cultural references, clandestine infiltration and monitoring to try and figure out exactly what kind of peaceful gesture these people would notice in order to avoid that first contact resulting in the aliens panicking and opening fire because they think they're being invaded or something. BECAUSE Voyager doesn't have time for this sort of in-depth research, they are constantly being shot at for no good reason; on the other hand, by the time they encounter the aliens for the first time they at least have a sense that they're in territory those aliens control (instead of just mindlessly blundering across somebody's border at high speed and then being all surprised when when the alien version of NORAD paints a target on your ass). It would also imply that more than half of the species their linguists analyze never encounter them at all.

All of this, of course, happens between cuts; that cute opening scene that ends with Janeway being paged to the bridge, it's actually a call for her to meet with the communications officer to tell her that they're coming up on a new group of language families and first contact is immanent. The cut where she ACTUALLY ARRIVES on the bridge is a week later when the aliens' terrified border patrol guys intercept them; the briefing scene was cut for brevity.


It would also be suggested that Cutting Room Hell actually encompasses ninety percent of what goes on aboard a starship, which is why the away missions only ever seem to involve the bridge officers. The entire rest of the crew have a shitload of other jobs to do before, during and after the away mission, so much so that each starship runs the equivalent of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory every single time they beam anyone down anywhere.
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Old January 30 2014, 11:45 PM   #6
Mytran
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

I've often wondered if we were sometimes watching the highlights or at least a slightly edited version of Trek events. However, your full "cutting room hell" theory matches up with Voyager's events so well I think I'll add it to my personal canon
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Old January 31 2014, 12:48 AM   #7
YARN
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

Every UT has a Babel Fish in its core processor.
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Old January 31 2014, 02:51 PM   #8
bountifulboxesjeg
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

^That's how Ferengi translators work, silly.
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Old January 31 2014, 07:09 PM   #9
Brannigan
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

Crazy Eddie that seems like a logical enough explanation. However, it still doesn't answer the question of what happens when aliens meet face to face and are able to understand each other flawlessly.
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Old January 31 2014, 09:31 PM   #10
Crazy Eddie
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

Brannigan wrote: View Post
Crazy Eddie that seems like a logical enough explanation. However, it still doesn't answer the question of what happens when aliens meet face to face and are able to understand each other flawlessly.
If I understand you correctly, the same Cutting Room Hell applies to everyone in smaller or larger proportions: If you're meeting face to face with an alien whose species you've encountered before, somebody out there -- maybe five or ten years ago -- spend weeks and months building a translation matrix between your two languages and your UT downloaded it with the last firmware patch.

The Cutting Room Hell also makes itself manifest WITHIN individual scenes, which is where face-to-face contact comes into play. When Ben Sisko is talking to Gul Dukat in his office, Gul Dukat is speaking Cardassian and Sisko is speaking English. Sisko sees and hears Gul Dukat speaking Cardassian, but he also hears a voice-over coming out of his commbadge (with a noise canceller that slightly mutes Dukat's real voice) with the computer doing its best to match his inflections and timing. The Cardassian language is sufficiently well understood that the translation is a pretty faithful representation of what Dukat is really saying, but even then there's enough margin for error that their conversation seems more than a little stiff, and at some moments they seem to be talking past each other:

DUKAT: Your Cardassian neighbors will be quick to respond to any problems you might have.
SISKO: <Not realizing that the Cardassian word "neighbor" roughly means "people who spy on you because they are hoping to report your ass to the Obsidian Order"> "We'll try to keep the dog off your lawn." <smiles pleasantly>
DUKAT: <Smiling back, wondering "The fuck does that mean?"> So... what did you think of Kai Opaka?

Also, it would explain the "TV dialog" syndrome in Star Trek where two different characters almost NEVER speak at the same time, and there's always a slight delay between their lines; no one ever talks over anyone else, even in an argument, they wait until the other person has completely finished speaking. This is probably best explained by the need to listen carefully for the translation, since even members of the same species do not always or usually speak the same language.
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Old January 31 2014, 11:27 PM   #11
bountifulboxesjeg
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

It could be Voyager scans planets, ships, and any source of information prior to (or during) transmissions. The Federation is known for their scanning ability.
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Old February 1 2014, 03:20 AM   #12
Nebusj
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

Nob Akimoto wrote: View Post
Evidently linguists in Star Trek have tapped into the Universal Grammar that might at least be innate to the structures of humanoid brains/sapience.
Tut. The obvious answer is that the universal translator, using the abilities of even the simplest quantum computational engines, searches out the superset of all possible universes for ones in which the users on both sides are able to communicate naturally. In those, obviously, matters can go on as before. The universes in which the users are not both able to communicate naturally are then, through a simple matter-antimatter reaction as described in ``The Alternate Factor'', reduced to a quantum foam of nonexistence so that nobody has to be bothered with living in a universe in which they can't be understood by whoever they need to speak to. It's all quite simple that way.
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Old February 2 2014, 11:06 PM   #13
Mytran
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

Oh, a magic door! Well why didn't you say?
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Old February 7 2014, 10:31 PM   #14
Mark_Nguyen
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

I think Rick Sternbach explained it once by saying the technology was actually built into our television sets, and that Star Trek was the only franchise to mention it. Everyone else (Star Wars, Stargate, etc.) just assumes we know the universal translator switch for our TV set is "on".

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Old February 7 2014, 11:59 PM   #15
Herkimer Jitty
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Re: How does the universal translator work?

How does the universal translator work?
Quite spiffingly, thank you very much.
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