“Star Trek’s” universal translators are one of the most crucial tools in the Trekverse. Without them, contact with new species would be impossible. As the name implies, the universal translators interpret different humans and alien languages and convert them into English, the default language of the future.
In the 2150s, the time period of “Star Trek Enterprise,” universal translators were still an experimental technology, and they often failed. Linguistics expert Hoshi Sato often used her own expertise to assist and enhance the universal translator’s programming.
A century later, in the time period of “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: The Original Series,” the universal translators were essential tools of space exploration. They were programmed with more than 1,000 languages, as Commander Michael Burnham told a Kelpian in the episode “The Sound of Thunder.” The devices used this linguistic database as a basis for translating brand new languages.
By the 2300s — the time of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and “Star Trek: Voyager” — universal translators were incorporated into the Starfleet com badges so they could be used continuously. Other species found different ways to employ universal translators. For example, in the DS9 episode “Little Green Men,” Quark, Rom, and Nog revealed that their universal translators were implanted in their ears.
How Does the Universal Translator Work?
In the TOS episode “Metamorphosis,” Captain James T. Kirk explained that the universal translator functioned by scanning the brainwaves of an alien species. The device tried to identify universal concepts from the brainwaves and translate them into English. The universal translator also used brainwave scans to determine gender and voice patterns so it could approximate an appropriate voice for the alien speaker.
However, the universal translator didn’t always work. Sometimes an alien language was so fundamentally different from English that it took the universal translator quite some time to adjust its programming. This was especially true for non-humanoid aliens because the universal translator was based on humanoid languages, as revealed in the “Voyager” episode “Nothing Human.” Other times, the universal translator found that there was no equivalent for an alien word or concept in English, so it failed to translate that bit of conversation.
Notably, the universal translator had a very difficult time with languages that involved contextual communication. In the TNG episode “Darmok,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard encountered a species that communicated entirely in metaphors from their own mythology. Though the universal translator could translate the exact words the alien was speaking, it could not translate the meaning behind the words.
So, like any other technology, the universal translator failed in its purpose every once in a while. However, it worked well enough to establish basic communication between thousands of species.
Why Doesn’t the Universal Translator Always Translate Familiar Languages?
One of the quirks of the universal translator is that sometimes it doesn’t translate certain words, phrases, or even long chunks of spoken communication, even when the language is in its database and very familiar. Frequent examples throughout the series are the Klingon language and the Bajoran language. Though Klingon and Bajoran are constantly interpreted by the universal translators, native Klingon and Bajoran are heard throughout the “Star Trek” shows, especially in DS9.
“Star Trek” canon has yet to give an official reason for these universal translator failures. So, for decades, fans have attempted to explain them based on context clues from the episodes.
The most popular theory relies on the canon concept that some words, thoughts, and concepts are just too foreign to be translated into English. Proponents of this theory point out that there are plenty of words that have been adopted into the English language because they have no English equivalent, like the word Blitzkrieg. So, it makes sense that, occasionally, there are words or concepts in alien languages that cannot be literally translated into English.
However, there are words that do have an analogous English word that still aren’t translated by the universal translator. The best example being the Klingon word Qapla’. Humans know that this is the Klingon word for success, but it’s never translated by the universal translator. It could be argued that this word doesn’t have the exact meaning of the English word “success,” so it’s not interpreted that way by the universal translators. However, the meaning is so wide-known that it seems like the universal translator should translate it.
This theory does make sense for the Klingon word petaQ, though. Assumedly, there is no English insult that conveys the same meaning as petaQ, so the universal translator does not translate the word.
This works the opposite way as well. Ferengis do not have a word for “humans” in their language. So, when they say the word, it’s translated the way that they interpret it — “hoomans” — instead of the proper pronunciation.
Another popular theory posits that since the universal translator is scanning brainwaves, it is scanning for the words, thoughts, and concepts that the speaker wants to communicate. This implies that consent is required for translation. As one Redditor pointed out, building consent into the universal translator would fit with Starfleet’s ethical principles. So, if a person didn’t want their communication understood by non-native speakers, their words would not translate.
This theory makes sense given the context in which native languages are often heard. Klingon is often heard when the Klingons are performing rituals. Bajoran is often heard when the Bajorans are praying. It would make sense that for these private, cultural endeavors, the speaker would not consent to be translated. Klingon is also frequently heard during arguments between two or more beings. This could also be a case where the speakers wouldn’t consent to translation because their argument is with the native speaker.
The consent theory would also answer an interesting question often brought up by fans: why isn’t native Cardassian ever heard in the Trekverse? If the consent theory is correct, it suggests that the Cardassians were very careful about what they said and what they concealed. Perhaps they never said anything in the presence of others that they wouldn’t want to be translated, effectively concealing their native language. This would certainly fit with the personality and culture of the Cardassians, which was intensely secretive and manipulative.
Another possibility that could apply to some of the untranslated words and phrases is that the universal translator doesn’t have the capability to translate ancient versions of a language. Rituals are often performed in ancient versions of a language that often don’t even translate into the modern versions of the languages. So, it’s possible that these words and phrases aren’t translatable because of their antiquity.
Though none of these theories gives a definitive answer as to why the universal translators sometimes fail to translate some words or phrases, they offer plausible explanations.
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