Sci-Fi Predicts End of Translation as We Know It

by Translation Guy on September 3, 2010

I’ve watched enough Star Trek over the years to know that all the best ideas come from space opera, which just goes to show that you translators are square in the cross-sights of a professional death ray from a vast conspiracy of Science Fiction hacks.

It’s not just that some Sci-Fi writers are good at predicting the future. The prognostication powers of some ink-stained SF wretch staring at a half blank page through a half empty bottle of Stoli are actually quite limited. Cory Doctorow says, “Science fiction writers don’t predict the future (except accidentally), but if they’re very good, they may manage to predict the present.”

And that’s the problem for you translators. These SF guys pick up on all the memes and ideas floating around in the meme echo-chamber (aka the Republic of Letters) and start massaging and elaborating, and pretty soon, all the other hacks, the journos, the bloggers, and the all the rest of the literary scum out there start to beat the same drum. And all these impressionable bright kids with too much time on their hands follow along.

Here’s how it goes: Edgar Rice Burroughs makes up some stuff about princesses on Mars. Young Sci-Fi geek reads book under bed with flashlight, aspires to date Martian princess, instead grows up into an older, wiser geek, realizes that geeks don’t get princesses, learns to love slime, and devotes life to the search for life on Mars. Which is how you find life on Mars. With each word the world is wrought.

Martian love story. Sweet, right? Not for you, Mr. (and Mrs.) Translator. Back home here on the Bug Planet, the Space Marines are all locked and loaded, blasters pointing straight at your pointy translating head.  Yes. That’s right. I’ve stopped typing to point my tricorder straight at you, and you, and you, translator. So come on, you apes. You want to live forever?

Sci-Fi just doesn’t like you.  But why? Why do these SF guys want to rid the galaxy of translators? Simple. We’re bad for Sci-Fi business. As soon as a translator beams down, the story goes into time shift―and not in a good way. What red-blooded youth wants to listen to some galactic interpreter repeat everything twice in an alien language? BORING! Or worse, you’ve got a space-port dive where the aliens come in every local color. How many simultaneous translation booths is that going to take?  None, because a deus ex machina interpreting booth is pretty lame. It takes a universal translator to keep things rolling. Some handy dandy device so storytellers can have it both ways― exotic and instantly comprehensible.

So all those young geeks who loved to watch Capt. Kirk put the moves on space sirens of dubious moral character are now compensating by building universal translation tools of dubious ability. Is there any trade beside translation that faces the same merciless attack from these clickity-clack armies of science fiction writers? I don’t think so. You don’t see universal lawyering devices at the movies, do you?

Losing your job to a plot device is bad enough, but there’s insult with this injury too. Translators also represent an aesthetic problem to high-tech sensibilities. Tired, not wired. Just little gremlins tapping out lines of code deep in the bowels of the machine, turning automatic bliss into start-and-stop manual. Running as we do on our little paleo-squirrel hamster wheels hidden within vast translation systems, our artisanal ways are far more Flintstone than Jetson. Translation is as artisanal as making cheese. That’s good for cheese, but not for translation, unfortunately.

So this idea of replacing linguists with devices is a powerful meme in our society. A few years ago ATA sent a letter to President Bill Clinton after he had promised Americans a universal translation device in every pot, or something like that. We got an apology too, for all the good it did. But no presidential orders preserving translation for translators came to pass. And since then, the vast resources of vast corporations run by tech geeks have been devoted to zapping translators out of the translation business.

While I try to milk this for all the pathos I can, I’ve got to admit that the future of Sci-Fi translators is not all galactic gloom and doom. Since cultural interlocutors are still required to keep things alien accessible to geek audiences, there is hope for us yet. For example, in Star Wars, the writers needed that irritating protocol droid C-3PO around so that he could tell the other characters they were getting shot at. Smart-alecky types like that are good for exposition―faithful story-bearers guiding audiences along the narrative trail. So Sci-Fi writers are likely to keep that cultural broker type around, which hopefully means that the tech geeks will still have some use for word-nerds in the future. The only problem with C-3PO as a professional role model is that he doesn’t have a mortgage and is willing to work for spare parts and WD-40.

Fine.  I never liked him much anyway. Maybe 3D translation is the way to go. Just so you know, if I don’t respond to your comments on this one right away, it’s because I’m going to be taking a soak in my Avatar tank. See, there’s this blue alien 8-foot-tall glass of water I’d like to get to know a little better. With that Vulcan mind-meld pony tail of hers, I’m sure we can reach new levels of cross-cultural communication.

….Now a few days later, in rereading this post, I find it just oozes the hairy-palmed frustration of the adolescent dweebs sitting at home reading S is for Space, or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, kind of sexist, but then so is Sci-Fi, right? But then I came across this female fan song tribute to my favorite, Master Ray Bradbury, who just turned 90. Here’s a link to the video, with a pic of Ray watching the same. Note that this video, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” is probably best viewed as Bradbury is best read―under the sheets with a flashlight (in other words, not work safe).


  1. a dark ally says:

    The pathos is great, Translation Guy, but I disagree with the doom-n-gloom. Sure, creating the illusion of everyone speaking the same language feeds the ultra-quick consciousness, but it doesn’t contribute to solving any of the most complicated problems vexing global society today.

    Your characterization of translators acting as interpreters, i.e., being “faithful story-bearers guiding audiences along the narrative trail” could serve as a mantra for the entire breadth of the profession. Translators and interpreters usually understand not only the content of messages (such as those extrapolated by your Sci Fi geek from Edgar Rice Burroughs or Ray Bradbury or Neal Stephenson), we also tend to grok the process of the way communication goes. This is stated succinctly by you as: “With each word the world is wrought.”

    It’s so in vogue to be self-effacing that the side effect of professional collusion with minimizing – even demeaning – the power of our role seems to pass by without notice. The evidence you lay out convinces me that it is high time for a coordinated revolt.

    • Ken says:

      Good point, Dark Ally. Now that the Web is essentially readable in any language, more monoglots may grok the need for cultural Sherpas to hump the the last high passes in the language barrier. For revolt coordination, your go-to cadres can be found forming cells at No Peanuts for Translators. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. (BTW, just picked up a copy of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” out of the trash the other day. I haven’t read it in 40 years, and I’m kind of afraid to crack it now for fear of dissapointment, since I no longer can read with a flashlight.)

  2. PY_ says:

    curiously enough that StarTrek translator device seems more like StarWars lightsaber(TM)…

  3. Love Bradbury, but this girl hasn’t read much scifi if she thinks hes “The Greatest Scifi Author” also, hes not exactly “prolific.” In sci-fi you’re not prolific until you’ve written two dozen novels.

    Also, Bradbury has said himself he only sees one of his books as ‘science fiction.”

  4. nikkibeltran says:

    Calling all Star Trek fans out there: The iPhone 3Gs has a universal translator called Jibbigo. Speak into your iPhone in any of the five supported languages, and the iPhone speaks the translation back. Anyone care to translate Klingon for me?

  5. Paul says:

    Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy predicted this with the Babel-Fish! It’s fascinating to see this technology being put to good use; this is an absolute necessity for the protection of the troops and civilians alike. I wonder: is this technology capable of interpreting variations in local dialects and offering ‘sets’ of possible interpretations to either/both end-users in situations where a translation is ambiguous, thereby replicating the more precise skills one would expect from a human?

  6. PatParker says:

    I read a bit of Bradbury here and there, but about a year ago a friend turned me on to The Martian Chronicles and it totally blew my mind. I know think of it as “One of the Great Books”.

    • Ken says:

      My favorite too. There will come soft rains.

  7. a dark ally says:

    Hey Ken, thanks for the lead!

    Are there any sign language interpreters included? In the UK and USA and Australia, there are strong, institutionalized systems guaranteeing decent pay and reasonable working conditions. Seems to me that spoken language interpreters and written language translators ignore the successful organizing of Deaf communities and interpreters for the Deaf.

    Sign language interpreters are being sucked into the techno-industrial engine though, through the advent of video relay services that clock work by the minute, putting interpreters on rigid timeschedules for breaks and destroying long-established practices of intercultural mediation. So, they could use your help, too.

  8. Mel says:

    I grok your meaning, Guy, but sometimes, reality is weirder than fiction. Just yesterday, somebody suggested eradicating translator to solve immigration problems in the US .

    What’s next?

    • Ken says:

      More of the same, Mel?

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