How does the universal translator work?

Discussion in 'Trek Tech' started by Brannigan, Jan 30, 2014.

  1. Nebusj

    Nebusj Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    ``And so, schoolchildren, it's generally accepted that the First Federation-Glornaxian War began when the communications officer on the USS Indefeasible mischievously set the translator output to `Elmer Fudd'.''
     
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  2. Drone

    Drone Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Forgive the foolishness of an utter newbie, but has there ever been even the slightest of hints as to an in-universe explanation of the above phenomena, or is it merely generically accepted in the manner of audible spatial sound effects, the presence, though never seen or referred to, of the good old WC, etc.
     
  3. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    Let's not forget that the human brain is already a Universal Translator. It takes gibberish for input and creates interpretations for output. Sometimes those happen to be correct interpretations; most often not. But the brain's one forte is self-deception: garbage in, wonderful truths out is what it was built for, and it achieves that by smoothing out the edges.

    Terhe aer pelnyt of cloo emplaxse of tihs. Say, it didn't take your brain half a second of extra time to ignore the incorrect ordering of letters in that sentence; ignorance is the real human superpower.

    The UT could easily exploit that. It wouldn't take much tickling of the brain to make us see the opponent's lips move in synch with what our ears are telling us (hell, we can do that without implanted brain-ticklers today!), nor to make us hear perfectly understandable phrases when alien speech hits our ears, an implant translates about 75% of it very coarsely on the way to the brain, and finally the brain does its usual ignoring on the input and spits out some understanding.

    As for the translating of new languages vs. old ones, VOY "Basics" is a cool example of this actually making technological sense. As long as our heroes wear their commbadges, which connect them to the vast computing power of the starship, they can easily talk in English, Talaxian and Kazon alike. Once the badges are taken off them, they can still converse in all these languages, though (and no, we cannot really assume that Neelix would have learned perfect English, or that the random Kazon extras would have, or that our heroes would have mastered the alien languages - heck, for all we know, even Tuvok only speaks Vulcan, and relies on the UT to communicate with his comrades!). BUT without their badges, they cannot learn a new language, and cannot communicate with the local cavemen!

    That logically follows if humans (like Ferengi) have implanted UTs that contain known languages but lack the computing power to translate unknown ones...

    Indeed. Just imagine how the scene would play out in slightly different circumstances:

    The trick here being, no actual Nazi would ever pronounce the word like the English do. In German, it's not Nooozzzy, it's Nutsy. Obviously, Romulans and Vulcans might have completely different ideas about how to pronounce the name of the former culture - and Vulcans would insist on their version, just like we'd insist on Nazi over Nutsy (despite the comical potential). We wouldn't dignify the name with its real, native pronunciation, and neither would T'Pol.

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  4. Relayer1

    Relayer1 Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Yeah, it just....works !
     
  5. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    ...It might be one of those ancient things developed aeons ago by some civilization that no longer can be contacted for specs. Everybody knows how to build the things now, but nobody really understands how they work.

    For a while, people liked to think that transporters were such a thing. Then it turned out that everybody had them in the 22nd century, and Earth had even developed its own seemingly independently. Even earlier on, people liked to think the same of warp drive, with the same disappointing conclusion... It does seem that amazingly alien and futuristic technologies are invented by lone inventor weirdos, while at the same time supposedly more conventional engineering teams with vastly greater physical and intellectual resources produce much humbler technologies. Which isn't quite as fantastic / scientifictional as these being alien technologies.

    Although perhaps this is actually even more fantastic. How do these individuals come up with these impossible ideas, let alone the means to turn them into an industry single-handedly? Is somebody supernatural/fantastic/scientifictional whispering in their ear, introducing the idea and then walking the inventor all the way through to practical execution?

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  6. Drone

    Drone Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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  7. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    No. What I mean is that the human brain will automatically choose to believe in lipsynch. We need no machinery for that, no artificial sensory input. All we need is a distraction to keep us from consciously realizing that this Japanese movie character's lips don't actually form the English words "Prepare to die, honored fiendish fiend - Ha JAH!" - and the UT can provide such a distraction simply by "tickling" the brain the right way.

    I would. The UT would take what the ear hears, analyze it like today's translation software analyzes signals picked up by a microphone, and alter it, and then feed it forward to the brain - that's the basic function. If necessary, it would also tickle the brain so that it doesn't notice that the lipsynch isn't perfect, and that the grammar doesn't quite work, and that there are many words missing - that's the relatively trivial second function.

    I don't see any need to assume that the UT, situated either between the ear and the brain or then between the incoming noise and the brain (in this case sidestepping the ear altogether), would have to shy away from altering the incoming speech rather fundamentally - changing the voice from deep male to shrill female, say. I'd actually expect the UT to produce a fairly generic and unconvincing voice for the translation, as this would make its task easier: there would be no effort put to voice imitation, because the brain would eventually self-deceive itself into hearing something suitable anyway. A little bit of "tickling" would again help there.

    Of course, the UT could be feeding its signals to the language center of the brain exclusively, leaving the timbre-oriented areas of the brain starved and allowing the brain to insert its own preferred timbre to the voice it does not really hear. All the brain is getting is the language, not the voice. A slightly more elaborate machine could tickle the brain into believing in a soothing female voice or a harsh Hungarian accent - not by actually simulating such things (remember, there's no voice coming in, only pure language), but by evoking the brain's own recollections of such things. One could then buy a suitable package of recollections; nothing as elaborate and fantastic as "Total Recall", merely a set of sound tapes one listens to, while the UT observes the reactions and writes some notes about the connections to specific brain activity for later use.

    Yes, this would definitely be true of the lipsynch: if B hears A say English words, thanks to a UT inserted in the auditory nerve of B, he will fool himself into seeing English lip movements on A, especially if "tickled" - but if C, standing nearby, only hears A's original Japanese words, he will not see English lip movements. But that already happens naturally if you watch sufficiently many lipsynched movies in a row: your brain wraps itself around lipsynch without the need for special machinery (although e.g. booze helps).

    Anyway, this is a confirmed feature of the UT: it allows B, C, D and E to hear the speech of A in their own respective languages simultaneously, without either B, C, D or E complaining about poor lipsynch. Explaining such things is best done if we ditch the idea of sound being manipulated (or else there'd be lots of overlapping and perhaps mutually destructive manipulation going on) and favor a model where the signal is being manipulated only after it has safely entered the user's noggin.

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  8. shady12

    shady12 Lieutenant Red Shirt

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    What I don't understand about it is why do we sometimes hear another language spoken? For example a Klingon will say Klingon words to a human and we hear Klingon words. Why don't we hear it always in English? Humans will sometimes say a word or phrase in Klingon to a Klingon and we hear it in Klingon. Shouldn't that also be translated audibly into English?
     
  9. Jedi_Master

    Jedi_Master Admiral Admiral

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    From a "in-universe" perspective the UT should allow both the original sounds/language and the translation into Federation Standard to be heard at the same time, but TV budgets don't always allow for such depictions.
     
  10. shady12

    shady12 Lieutenant Red Shirt

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    Do you mean the way it's supposed to work is the way it worked for a certain character in Beyond?
     
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  11. Go-Captain

    Go-Captain Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    The universal translator is space magic, nothing less. However, Star Trek does have some technologies which might explain how it works.

    In TOS they have the mental tricorder, and other mind reading equipment where they can flip through a person's memories without any harm. In TNG we find their memory editing techniques cross species barriers. It is a small leap to go from those things to the idea that the universal translator is pretty much psychic; it reads the mind to figure out everything from context to inflection all in the space of a nanosecond; then it follows up by producing a highly directional and inverse audio signal aimed at the user's ears to block the alien voice, and produces an artificial voice speaking in such a way that it matches up with the alien lip contortions and meaning.

    The data version of this would be similar, except it would involve two networks or computers working their way up mathematically to a shared network protocol and emulation software.
     
  12. Ríu ríu chíu

    Ríu ríu chíu Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    Then I wonder why it didn't work that way for the Romulans in ST09.
     
  13. drt

    drt Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Maybe the Romulans were speaking Federation Standard, which is why Nero seemed weirdly casual in his communications.
     
  14. Ríu ríu chíu

    Ríu ríu chíu Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    More likely, Romulan is simply easier for the UT to translate. (And why would a Romulan crew of civilian miners bother learning English anyway?)
     
  15. Crazy Eddie

    Crazy Eddie Vice Admiral Admiral

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    [​IMG]

    There are some Klingon dialects that don't translate, either because they're rare and uncommon or because they're actually a form of slang/pidgin that doesn't make a lot of sense to begin with and any translation would be meaningless without context. In this case, the Tamarians might be unusual in that they EXCLUSIVELY speak a slang form of an otherwise perfectly translatable language.

    Which was AWESOME, by the way. The fact that both she and Krall turned out to be fluent in English wasn't just a handwave, it turned out to be a major plot point!

    Because Nero and Ayel were deliberately speaking English. And not, it seemed to me, particularly well:

    Nero: "Helloooooo!"
    Pike: "This is Captain Christopher Pike, to whom an I speaking?"
    Nero: "Hi Christopher. I'm Nero."

    It's like Nero learned to speak the language from a "Basic Conversational English" online training course or something. The scene where it's interrogating Pike has a similar cadence; his vocabulary seems a bit more limited than one might have expected.
     
  16. Tenacity

    Tenacity Fleet Captain Captain

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    a Klingon will say Klingon words to a human and we hear Klingon words

    The translator is sophisticated enough to understand that all words are not meant to be translated. If we are having a conversation where I'm speaking German and you're hearing English, and at the end of one of my sentences I say "c'est la vie," the translator's program would leave that in French.

    At other times, sometime a single word represents a entire concept, and there simply is no corresponding word or term in the language being translated to.
     
  17. shady12

    shady12 Lieutenant Red Shirt

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    Did she end up speaking English? I guess I didn't notice or forgot. I was talking about how there was a audible translation in English of the what she was saying in her language. I was when I asked the question wondering if that's the way it ALWAYS works but we don't actually see it that way on TV.
     
  18. Dilandu

    Dilandu Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    MAGIC.

    Really, there is no other explanation.
     
  19. loghaD

    loghaD Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    While I suspect that is part of the reason (the word Qapla', for example, is presumably iconic and recognizable enough that it can be treated as a borrowed expression, and many curses probably defy translation), I believe a large part of the reason may be that the universal translator depends on a "Detect language" function - similar to Google Translate and its likes - and translates conversations in bulk, rather than the individual words (after all, otherwise you'd run into trouble when talking to somebody with a language that uses a different word order than English; Klingon, for example).

    There is some evidence that many Klingons - at least high-ranking ones, or ones assigned to deal with Federation affairs - are fairly proficient in Eng... I mean, in Federation Standard. Which makes a lot of sense, from a "know your enemy" point of view. Perhaps Klingons stationed near the Romulan border are instead proficient in Romulan (perhap even all three dialects!).

    Consider for instance when Riker was serving on the IKS Pagh in A Matter of Honor; Klag began speaking to Kargan in Klingon (yIHarQo'! nepwI' ghaH!), but Kargan rebuked him, saying "Speak their language!" (Holchaj yIjatlh!), which Klag then does. So, at least two Klingons on this vessel spoke FedStandard. Granted, this may have been taken into consideration when this ship was chosen for the exchange program , but it's a precedent, anyway.

    Consider also in DS9: The Way of the Warrior. Gowron and the DS9 crew have been speaking at some length over subspace, with no apparent langauge barrier. However, Gowron end the conversation with a sentence in Klingon (which sounds *Heghchu' jajvam jaj QaQ*). The universal translator does not translate this, but rather the crew turns to Worf, who explains that Gowron had said "Today is a good day to die." It seems to me as though the best explanation for this sudden confusion is that they had been conversing in FedStandard for so long that the universal translator wasn't prepared to translate from Klingon. If they had the time, I'm sure they could have gone over a recording of the conversation and had the UT translate the Klingon sentence, but as it stood, it was much more practical to just ask Worf.

    Then, of course, there's Worf. He appears to be proficient in multiple dialects of Klingon, but he spent most of his childhood on Earth and most of his adult life in Starfleet, so we can probably assume he speaks excellent Federation Standard. And most likely, he uses this language to communicate with the crew, so that he can choose his words rather than leaving it to a machine. Therefore, on the rare occasion that he lets out a Klingon word, such as ghIqtal or Qapla', the UT lags behind and doesn't translate it. The same goes for B'Elanna, who is considerably less eager to evoke her Klingon heritage, and therefore uses Klingon incredibly rarely.
     
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