Pure Fiction But We Wish It Was Real: Universal Translator

The hardest thing about writing science fiction is how to explain the way different species interact without a common language. Learning every alien language encountered would be virtually impossible even with a language-morph.

Although, I’ve thought about including one in one of my series. In order to move the plot along without getting bogged down with the technicalities of language comprehension.

A universal translator device is the answer to this quandry.  Murray Leinster’s 1945 novella “First Contact”, is the first mention of this kind of technology.

Sometimes, an alien race is able to extrapolate the rules of English from little speech and then immediately be fluent in it, making a universal translator unnecessary. 

While a universal translator seems unlikely, due to the apparent need for telepathy, scientists continue to work towards similar real-world technologies involving small numbers of known languages. Technology companies are striving to develop a practical “universal” translator for common use. See my article on just such a device here

As a person who knows a few spoken and signed languages the idea of this technology is fascinating.  

If you’re feeling inclined, comment below with your languages or languages you wish you could speak. Where would you go with a universal translator?

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T.S. Valmond is the science fiction and young adult fantasy author of The Bolaji Kingdoms Series and The Verity Chronicles. As an award-winning poet, world traveler, and sign language interpreter she uses her experiences to fuel her stories. She’s a regular contributor to the website and founder of the Riders & Flyers group.


  1. My favourite is the Babelfish of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The explanation of how it works is no sillier than any other!

  2. Oh how I wish I could understand and speak dozens of languages, if not ALL of them! There was a Star Trek episode about a language that didn’t work with the universal translator because it was all made up of metaphors and references instead of being literal. It was an interesting way to point out that translation is a lot more than just replacing one word with another, and at the moment still seems very far beyond the capabilities of AI. Still, I can dream.
    Black and White: U is for Umbrellaphant

    1. Hi Anne! You’re thinking of Darmok, and yes, a lovely episode, and as I recall, CPtain Picard worked it out, with the help of the other captain.

      1. Thanks for that episode name, Sue. Yes, in the end, they worked it out only because they both wanted so much to have first contact and peace. A great example of how hard it actually is to achieve both.

    2. One of my personal favorites! “Shaka when the walls fell,” is a way of describing failure. Imagine if that was how we spoke today! The combination of metaphor and proper nouns make it very hard. I need to try this in a story and see if I can make it work.

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