Parlez-vous Usted English?

Posted by Arlo on Oct 8, 2003 under Thought Objects

I like science fiction. I’m hooked the way lonely housewives are addicted to romance novels and the Lifetime Network. I’ll watch the movies, I’ll quickly commit to a season of episodic television, I’ll read the novels and the short stories. I doubt there’s any one reason why I’m drawn to fantastic descriptions of utopian or dystopian futures, rather it’s probably the same combination of events in my youth that nurtured my fondness for hi-tech gadgets, comic books, and computer games.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the big conceits of sci-fi – interspecies communication. For each movie, show, or book there is usually a God-like device inserted to enable the author to get past the language barrier. Douglas Adams imagined the improbable Babel Fish (appropriately adopted by Altavista search engine geeks as the name for their web page translation tool), but it was Star Trek that introduced The Universal Translator into the public conscience.

Whatever the contrivance, the intent is the same: To shelve the language barrier in deference to the story being told. It’s understandable. As a viewer, can you imaging watching every sci-fi story with a realistic alien language barrier? You would either have to read a lot of subtitles or miss out on half the story. Of course, if written well, the process of communication barriers could be very interesting – but how many authors or scriptwriters have the ability to create entire languages while telling a compelling story?

It wasn’t until high school that I came across my first spell checker (stick with me here!) Back then they were still fairly simplistic – mine could tell me if a word wasn’t in a dictionary, but not much else. Before long (college, in my case) clever Microsoft programmers introduced new thesaurus and grammar checking features, and it occurred to me recently that these may have been the first steps toward a true Universal Translator.

Think about it. With Word’s ability to spell-check in real time (underlining enigmatic words in your document with wavy red and green lines) it must be going through all sorts of cross-referencing in background databases. I’m sure it wasn’t long after Word became widespread that some cunning linguist realized that translation software would be a piece of cake. All you’d need is fast processing and two big, linked databases. 20,000 English words linked to 20,000 Spanish words – how easy as that? Click the “Translate” button and your fancy program could simply substitute each Spanish word for its equivalent in English.

I had exactly that by the time I was enrolled in my college’s Spanish Literature class, and let me tell you, it wasn’t worth much more than a speedy dictionary. Anyone that’s studied another language can tell you that direct, written translations are not altogether useful. Most of the time, they can give you a good clue towards the meaning of a sentence, but that’s about it.

In studying Spanish, it never ceases to amaze me how many similarities and cognates it shares with English. (Conversely, studying Russian amazes me how few similarities I can find – and I’m comparing it to two languages!) Sometimes the resemblance is obvious. Any English word ending in –tion, for instance, is essentially the same in Spanish — but often it goes deeper than that. Take this sentence: “I have to go to the store.” In Spanish you would say, “Tengo que ir a la tienda.” What’s interesting is that you use the verb “to have” in both cases. Why is that interesting? Well, “to have” usually indicates possession (i.e., I have a car.), but in both languages you use the same verb, the same conventions even, to indicate obligation.

Of course, if parallels like that were universal, becoming fluent in Spanish would be effortless. Often a very common saying in English has no translation in Spanish. “Can I have a ride?” can’t be expressed in Spanish because there is no noun for “ride.” And let’s not get started on idiomatic expressions… If you think someone might be teasing you, in Spanish you might ask, “¿Me estás tomando el pelo?” or “Are you taking my hair?” Doesn’t make much sense, but then when you think about it, neither does: “Are you pulling my leg?”

Have you every really thought about phrases like:

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush?
He let the cat out of the bag?
Or a great one I learned from my grandfather: …So nervous he was pinching his seat.

An episode of Stargate SG-1 was the catalyst that brought all these thoughts together in my head. In it, two members of the SG team are caught in a “time loop” and are forced to repeat 6 hours of the same day. It takes them “months” to break the loop because they are forced to learn Latin in order to translate the instructions on the time machine. The story takes a whimsical approach to what someone might do in six hours if they knew that there would be no consequences to their action – resigning after kissing a coworker one day, taking advantage of the Stargate to hit a golf ball across the galaxy another.

At the end of the episode, the main character used the phrase “The King of Groundhog Day” to describe his situation. Of course, he tells this to an alien character and we have to assume that the Universal Translation makes it understandable (or we could choose to assume that the alien speaks English – I’d rather not.) Think about that. What would a Universal Translator have to say in order to get that particular point across in a truly alien language?

Let’s take a stab at it, but to simplify, we’ll ignore the pitfalls associated with grammar. Believe me, from trying to learn Russian, I can vouch for the fact that even simple things like articles and prepositions might not function the same (or even exist!) in other languages. Let’s just focus on the remaining nouns, shall we? And for bonus points, we won’t even use a dictionary!

“The King of Groundhog Day.” Hmmm, well, “king” should be fairly easy to translate. How about “leader of a nation?” Okay, not quite. How about “principal leader of a nation usually established by birthright.” Okay, good.

“Groundhog Day” is a little harder. A “day” is “one complete axial revolution of the 3rd planet in the solar system.” (I leave it to the reader to figure out what’s wrong with using “solar system.”) “Groundhog” would be the easiest word to translate… if the alien knew what a groundhog was. I doubt it, but let’s hope they have mammals, because I don’t want to get into internal gestation and lactation distinctions. Let’s go with: “A furry, non-sentient animal that lives in a hole in the ground.”

That’s all fine and dandy, but we haven’t even come close to explaining what Groundhog Day is about. To do that, our Universal Translator will have to explain how, on a specific day of the year, people traditionally gather to watch a Groundhog emerge from his hole and observe it looking for his shadow, and if he sees it, the winter season will have been assumed to have been extended. Okay, I’m not going to even try to break up that run-on sentence for translation!

Oh, but we’re not even done. Even assuming that we could get all that information across to the alien, for him to understand the original comment, a translator would have to explain something else: That there was a movie that captured the public’s conscience for a time, and in that movie, the protagonist was forced to endure the same day repeatedly.

Put together, even on the most basic level, that’s a massive amount of information to convey. (To be the principal leader by birthright of a nation for one complete axial rotation of the 3rd planet of the solar system during which a small, furry animal is, one time in each of the planet’s orbit around its sun, observed searching for its shadow to establish upcoming meteorological events, said with irony with respect to a movie in one of the planet’s societies’ conscience about a man forced to repeat the same duration of the planet’s axial rotation many times.) In cases like this (a very common one across alien races and even human cultures, I would imagine), I can’t decide what would be worse: A direct translation, or a complete one. Either way, it’s going to be hard as hell to make yourself understood!

One of the writers for Star Trek; The Next Generation, must have been thinking about languages, too, when he or she wrote “Darmok.” The dilemma in that episode was that, while the Universal Translators were working, their direct translations of everything meant nothing to the characters trying to communicate. Eventually the captain of the Enterprise discovered that the alien race spoke only in metaphors. Without an historical context, the humans were only able to understand the individual words, not the meaning behind them. It’s not quite the same as trying to communicate in idiomatic expressions, but it’s close enough for government work.

It all comes down to your point of reference. So much of a way in which a language is created is dependent on the shared experiences of a society. I wonder: Is language necessary outside society? Differing societies have different collections of experiences and therefore have different words, grammar, and concepts to describe them.

So, will anyone ever build a Universal Translator? Oh, they’re already on their way. My trusty copy of Microsoft Word can tell me when I mistype (not misspell!) you’re and your; they’re, their, and there; or its and it’s. And, more impressively, after I type a sentence in Spanish instead of English, Word will switch over and spell-check my document against a Spanish dictionary. (Which really freaked me out the first time all those red lines switched places!)

Grammar checkers are beginning to understand context, but judging by the number of times I get green underlines and choose not to accept the program’s suggestions, they still have a long way to go. Computers are great at sorting through massive amounts of information in very short periods of time, but they’re not at all “smart.” Unless software engineers make big breakthroughs in coding fuzzy new types of logic, we won’t have a real Universal Translators until computers develop artificial intelligence.

Bummer. If science fiction has taught me anything, it’s that artificially intelligent computers will be far more interested in our destruction than our translation!

(By the way, I just love that if Microsoft Word had had it’s way, you would have read: “…fantastic descriptions of utopian or dustpan futures…” in my opening paragraph!)