A Failure to Communicate

imageI am a Star Trek fan. I love the series and like many Star Trek fans, I prefer Star Trek Next Generation over all the various incarnations of the show. A friend and I once drove to NY for a product launch just for the chance to see John-Luc Picard live on stage(1) (actually I think he goes by Patrick Steward) but what does he know? Some think that the series was merely entertaining, others (like me) believe that Star Trek offers a view into our future.

I’m comfortable with the biology of Star Trek. Let’s face it, we are still discovering life forms on this planet, so who’s to say these species aren’t out there? I’m comfortable with warp speed. Einstein says it can’t be done, but I think that it will happen. Transporter technology? Well, researchers at the California Institute of Technology were able to transport a photon almost a meter – not exactly “beam me up Scotty” but it’s a start.

Star Trek weapons technology? Tell me you don’t think those weapons are already on a Pentagon drawing board. The communicators and the tablet Westley Crusher did his homework on have already been surpassed by iPhones and iPads.

There is one concept in Star Trek that I don’t buy into though – universal translation. In STNG episode “Booby Trap” the Enterprise crew discovers a derelict Promellian Battle Cruiser sitting in an asteroid field. The Promellians were an alien species known to have been wiped out in a war that ended over 1,000 years prior to the Enterprise discovery. The Enterprise enters the asteroid field and an “away team” consisting of Captain Picard, Lt Warf and Commander Data beams onto the bridge of the battle cruiser.

Keep in mind, I’m OK up to this point, “Beaming” over? Sure. Sentient android? No problem.

The away team discovers the Promellian bridge stations occupied by skeletons in uniform. Captain Picard, an explorer at heart, is exhilarated. Warf, the Klingon warrior says “they died at their post, an honorable death” commander Data, sentient albeit lacking emotion is unaffected. They return to the Enterprise to request a Federation science vessel to catalog the battle cruiser before leaving. As they put the Enterprise in gear, as it were, the ship remains motionless.

“Engineering, Mr. La Forge, report!

“Sir, the matter injectors are on-line; anti-matter injectors are on-line, no problems in the reaction chamber – we should be going like a bat out of hell but were not moving”

Curious that that expression survives another 400 years but I digress. The crew quickly concludes that they are trapped by the imagesame force that trapped the Promellians 1,000 years earlier. They return to the battle cruiser to see if there is any information there that can help them understand their situation.

Once on the battle cruiser, Commander Data discovers several small cylindrical objects that he deduces are the ship’s log. He plops one in a “player” device, wirelessly connects his tricorder to provide power to the player and is able to recover video entries off the cylinders which are automatically translated into English.

No way, not possible, not in 400 years, not in 4,000 years!

Until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone around 1800 AD, we were unable to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Egyptians are imagehuman, resident on the same planet as the French man who was trying to read their writing and, depending on the camp you’re in, the Egyptians and the French were either created by the same God or they evolved from the same monkeys – still the French man couldn’t understand their writing without a cheat-sheet. The Rosetta stone is roughly two feet by four feet and contains the same passage written in three different languages. To be able to translate the language of every alien species (including those that died over 1,000 years ago) the Enterprise would have to carry a Rosetta stone the size of Texas!

Even the fact that Data’s Tricorder and the Promellian storage device could “talk” to each other is hard to accept. I have files from 10 years ago stuck forever on 3 ½” floppies that I can no longer read. What chance does an alien have 1,000 years from now if he uncovers my laptop?

According to the Bible (Genesis 11:1–9), early humans attempted to build a city and a tower whose top would be in the Heavens. Proud and boastful, their attempt to build the city with its heavenly tower angered God.

“Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.”

Thousands of years later as an American traveler I could barely hold a conversation with the cab taxi driver in England. I don’t think a few hundred more years is going to help.

By the way, if you’re getting ready to point me to Google’s “Translate Page” option, you might want to read this first. It’s a post from a blogger friend in California. That’s the place where they can transport photons, so he must know what he’s talking about.

(1) We didn’t actually get to see the Captain. This was for an IBM product lunch (OS/2 Warp) and at the last minute, they substituted Captain Janeway from Voyager (Kate Mulgrew).

28 thoughts on “A Failure to Communicate

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  1. Pictures – Today’s pictures are bits of the future that I have received as gifts over the years. The Phaser (old style from Original Series) was purchased as a prop for a speech at Toastmasters.

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  2. Another well-written, authoritative and informative post. Fully agree that Star Trek portrays a lot of potential advances of the future. I doubt we’ll find a way of contradicting Einstein’s assertions, but there are already several lines of research suggestive of ways of ‘getting round them.’
    A fascinating post!

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    1. LOL.. I remember needing a translator just to interpret what my teenage son was saying half the time – they seem to develop a whole new vocabulary beyond a certain age, though I dare say I was probably no different.

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  3. Yes, well, I never “get” how Hollywood spends millions of dollars on special effects for a period piece of film and then totally cops out by making it in English with no visible attempt to even interject an accent. BTW, I lived the old Star Trek. I loved Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, etc. i grew up on that stuff. :)

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    1. I grew up on The Original Series as well and I really like the hopeful message that that series had to offer during those times. There were times that STNG struggled with language, but you’re right, most of the time, the translator just seemed to work perfectly behind the scenes. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. Always makes me smile when I stumble on to another trek fan! :) grew up watching the original series, then fell in love with voyager & now I’ve come to appreciate tng (which is probably my favourite of all the series).
    It’s always bugged me how most sci-fi series have some kind of universal translator (or just decide that all aliens races speak perfect english). Surely there must be some interesting plot lines that could come from trying to translate/understand an alien language? Yet from what I’ve read it’s apparently easier to have everyone speak the same language.

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    1. I guess the episode that came closest to building a plot around a language barrier was “Darmok‎” which is actually one of my favorite episodes. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

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  5. Remember the exchange in the Twilight Zone episode “People Are Alike All Over”? Where the astronaut asks, “How do you know my language?” and they reply: “We don’t. As you will no doubt soon realize, you are speaking our language.” Good post, Dan!

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    1. Thanks, and I do remember that episode Paul. I’ve always struggled a bit understanding what real message was in that one. I’ve often wondered if that line was a subtle way of putting us in our place.

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  6. I agree with everything except…Kirk. The answer is Kirk. When you adjust for the fact that it was made in the 60s, it becomes incredible. The original Star Trek established many of the things we see in SciFi shows today.

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    1. That is a very good point. Not only their take on technology, the effects that they achieved, but when you consider the social statement they chose to make in the 60’s, the show really does become incredible. I do think that the Twilight Zone had some influence on that as well. In any case, STNG had big shoes to fill. They did a good job, but it was a challenge all around. Thanks, as always Pie.

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  7. Some (many) years ago, I had a 2 hour commute to work – around the M25 from Romford to Slough if anyone knows that route. I used to listen to story tapes whilst spending hours in traffic jams. One Christmas I was given a “Teach Yourself Klingon” tape. For some weeks I struggled to learn this “language” in the car but finally had to give up. I just couldn’t stand the amount of spitting that went on! The best that I can remember is the phrase “To be or not to be” which I leart as “taH pagh taHbe” although there seems to be lots of opinions on the correctness of this (in a made up language of a race many millions of miles away in space)!

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  8. It would seem that Klingon would come in handy during meetings. I have one of those tapes but I never actually tried listening to it. I did thumb through the dictionary for a while. Meanwhile, I still can’t figure out why you guys say ‘maths’ instead of just ‘math’. Thanks for the comment.

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