Posted on: 14 May 2012
Written by: malcolm
The world of science fiction has shown us many wonders: alien intelligences; faster-than-light (FTL) travel; dematerialisation transporter devices; bigger, brighter, louder weapons; machine intelligences taking over the world; Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming a successful U.S. politician… This list barely scrapes the tip of the iceberg.
Some of the developments shown in what we consider to be science fiction are quite clearly preposterous and might more properly belong in the realm of fantasy. To the best of scientific knowledge, it is never going to be possible to gad about the universe at FTL speeds, battling galactic despots using the “Force”, although there is some speculation that things like wormholes or ‘warp’ drives might just possibly allow us to cheat Einstein’s ultimate speed limit.
Of course, there are devices from science fiction that have become reality: the hypospray, detailed in a 1947 radio series, found its real world equivalent in the jet injector (patented in 1960 before Star Trek popularised the concept in 1966); a 1911 novel by Hugo Gernsback anticipated radar, getting close to describing the actual mechanism 23 years before the first radar system was demonstrated; additionally, H.G. Wells described an atomic bomb and uranium fallout in 1914.
Then there are the innovations that may possibly become a reality or at least approximated, and one of these is the universal translator. Language issues are integral to science fiction wherein humans encounter weird and wonderful life forms and have to speak with them. Actually learning the language is, naturally, far too dull and humdrum, especially when you are trying to entertain the masses on wireless, cathode ray or widescreen LCD.
And so, science fiction series and films make use of various conventions to prevent the audience losing interest during alien-speak. In some science fiction, as in fact in some more mundane drama, everyone speaks English (or the target audience’s language) for the audience’s benefit, often with a dodgy accent to show that they are actually speaking a foreign tongue, and it’s simply accepted.
Elsewhere, the Doctor’s Tardis makes it possible for the Doctor’s travelling companions to understand all aliens, the Babel fish is one of the galactic Hitch-Hiker’s most essential items (given the absurdity of the Babel fish, I was amazed to see the low budget 2009 Princess of Mars film use a similarly creature-based translation system with apparently serious intent) and, of course, the universal translator accompanies the crew of the Starship Enterprise on all of their missions.
In the real world the universal translator is, if at all possible, a long way from being reality. Machine translation and voice recognition are both far from the slick implementation seen in Star Trek. Yet, there are devices which approximate the effect. The U.S. army has been using something called a Phraselator since 2001. This is preloaded with a number of set phrases (current versions have up to about 100,000) and allows one-way speech-to-speech translation, alright for issuing instructions in pre-conceived situations, but not so good for conversation.
In the written word, machine translation has come on by leaps and bounds, thanks largely to MT software using immense translation memory style corpuses, but you still can’t point a machine translation tool at a previously unseen sentence and expect a reasonably good, natural outcome, and Google Translate and its fellows can still not be relied on for anything more than gist extraction.
For the moment, I am happy to report that the concept of machine translation replacing the expert human translator or interpreter is still just Science Fiction.
 The Shadow – Radio series. The hypospray featured in an episode called ‘The Comic Strip Killer’
 Ralph 124C 41+ – Hugo Gernsback.
 Doctor Who – A British television series featuring a time-travelling humanoid alien. Don’t get me started on how almost all film and TV aliens seem to be at least vaguely humanoid!
 The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Radio series, book series, television series and film, initially created by Douglas Adams
 Based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had his protagonist spend several weeks or months learning the local language.