1. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Are universal translators needed?

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by plothog, Nov 16, 2015.

    There are many settings in fantasy and sci-fi where characters can visit a new world and can understand an indigenous population that they have never even heard of before.
    Some fictional universes have ways of adressing this, e.g universal translators in Star Trek and the Babel Fish in Hitchhikers guide.
    How necessary are such plot devices? Or if it's not explained is it the sort of plot hole most readers will turn a blind eye to? Are fantasy readers going to be more forgiving of this than sci-fi readers?
    I ask because currently my fantasy novel with touches of science-fi has no explanation for why characters from another world speak English. I have thought of a solution to this, but it would require some anniying reworking, which I don't want to bother with if no one would care.
     
  2. Acanthophis
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    Acanthophis ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) Contributor

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    I think that in general fantasy is more forgiving because the races are, more often than not, from the same local region. Science fiction is more difficult to justify, in my opinion, as races are often from entirely different worlds. In my own sci-fi work, I've made it so the two races which bump into each other cannot communicate at all for the first several weeks/months - and even then, only political members belonging to either race are fluent in the others' language. I live in Canada, and most of us speak either English or French - very few speak both fluently, but many jobs in government require a good understanding of both languages.

    If you want to make it as believable as possible, have it so only those who would need to speak another language do so. Would I personally care if your characters could speak a multitude of languages? No, not really, but some may. It's really a matter of convenience; if every fantasy/sci-fi out there gave you a reason as to why the people can understand several languages, you'd be annoyed. If the two races have known about one another [and have interacted] for quite some time, you don't need to justify why they can communicate effectively.
     
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  3. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I give authors a pass for this one. I'm so used to reading books where everybody speaks English that the contrived explanations for universal understanding stick out to me far more than the unlikelihood of everybody understanding each other. With sci-fi you're always going to get some humourless people moaning about every inaccuracy or improbable convenience but those are the kind of people who write the 'goofs' pages on IMDB.
     
  4. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    You only need to explain how different peoples understand one other if you also include a plot point about them failing to understand one another.

    And different languages isn't the only reason for a misunderstanding...

    A tale that was told me...

    Cockney driver of overheating coach: "Got some water, mate?"
    Welsh farmer (accustomed to the word please being included in a request for assistance): "We have to pay water rates, here, you know."
    Exit Cockney driver (unaccustomed to receiving sarcasm in response to what he perceived as a perfectly polite request) with water but accusing all Welsh of being tight-fisted.
     
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  5. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    In fantasy they often have something like "the common tongue", like their lingua franca that most characters speak to varying degrees. I'm cool with that.

    I do get a bit annoyed how perfect English every alien race speaks in StargÅte. I know that's how they had to go about it for clarity, but still.

    A universal translator gadget could be used for humorous effect. :D
     
  6. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I feel guilty. I just came up with two ways that other species we meet would know English. But, I cancelled the post and put them in my ideas file for my own use in the future.

    There will be many ways of solving the problem, without a universal translator.
     
  7. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I agree here. Unless the story includes a must-be-dealt-with first contact scenario, I simply assume that standard Sci-Fi tech (aka the gloss brush) is in play. And I totally agree about the "goofs" pages on sites like IMDB, Movie|fone, etc. :agreed: Spending time/angst in shit like that is a criminal waste of life. "In this scene there are two bites taken out of the hamburger and then in the next scene there's only one bite! WTF?! Can you believe that? What were they thinking???" :bigmeh:
     
  8. Morgan Stelbas
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    Morgan Stelbas Active Member

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    It's true how some people will knit pick and look for plot holes. Sometimes I catch myself doing it with movies.

    I think sci-fi readers tend to be more logical and will look for how things work logically. That is why sci-fi shows and movies have to include "universal translator" devices to quickly explain how races can interact and not waste so much time on it if it doesn't involve the story. I do remember one episode of ST-TNG where Captain Picard was stranded on a planet with an alien and no translator, so the whole episode was him trying to communicate.

    But then again, Star Wars is considered sci-fi, isn't it? But I don't think there is a part that explains how different races understand the same language, yet look at how many fans that franchise has with almost everyone turning a blind eye to that plot hole.

    If you make the plot and characters interesting enough, I think readers will either not notice the plot hole or ignore it because of their love of the story.
     
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  9. Acanthophis
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    Acanthophis ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) Contributor

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    @Morgan Stelbas I don't think Star Wars is considered sci-fi, as it isn't. There is a galactic standard language in Star Wars though, which has been used for thousands of years by the majority of planets. Technically speaking, the characters in Star Wars aren't speaking English, it's just been translated for us so we can understand what they're saying. :p
     
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  10. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    I've used translation machines in some of my sci fi's but for fantasy I usually tend to use a standard tongue called "common" or "trade" and then have everyone speak it but also have their own individual tongue as well. So there are things which everyone understands and things which say onlythe elves understand as it's in Elvish.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  11. Morgan Stelbas
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    Morgan Stelbas Active Member

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    Thanks for the clarification! :D
     
  12. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Star Wars is very much considered sci-fi but it's in the subgenre of Space Opera, not "Hard Sci-Fi".

    If you're writing Space Opera, not everything needs to work as long as you can creatively handwave stuff you can't explain in service of the larger plot. Space Operas are first an foremost adventure stories and readers will forgive a lot.

    If you're writing in the Hard Sci-Fi subgenre, you need to be a lot better at making sure the science works and use minimal hand-waves only when you absolutely need them.

    There's also Military Sci-Fi - there you can handwave the non-military stuff but the guns and military tactics had better work.

    Moral of the Story: Subgenre matters.
     
  13. Jeff Countryman
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    Jeff Countryman Living the dream Supporter

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    Isn't "mathematics" the universal language of all (at least here on earth it is) and perhaps use that to simply transcend the difference? I speak in sign language which transcends most languages, so maybe that would work. In all honesty, I could be Russian, German, French, or Swedish . . . yet still use simple sign language to tell (express) to a Martian that I love him/her in my heart. "I love you" is easy to show via signing versus speaking. Maybe start with signs.....?
     
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  14. Morgan Stelbas
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    Morgan Stelbas Active Member

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    That is such an interesting concept. However even sign language varies in language. For instance, the Japanese Sign for brother and sister (from what I was told) could be offensive to someone in ASL. :ohno:
    Music is also a universal language (on earth). Maybe we start communicating in music notes? :whistle:
     
  15. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I read a book about Neanderthals who had limited vocalisation and communicated mainly by a kind of sign language. Each 'clan' had their own language and then there was a common, formal language that all of them knew and could speak when they met up.
     
  16. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks for the responses. I can see their are examples where authors don't worry about languages so I probably won't bother.
    I'm writing is a sort of reverse portal fantasy, (The residents of a magic containing fantasy world end up travelling through a portal to a near future version of Earth.) So unfortunately speaking 'Common' doesn't quite work as a solution.

    There are portal stories which ignore the issue altogether. The only portal story examples I could immediately think of that didn't cover it for sure - were children's fantasy such as Narnia. I'm not writing children's fantasy.
    Some adult portal stories take language into account. (The Riftwar Saga certainly does, as does the Long Earth series.)

    I think I was mostly just second guessing myself.
    I'm finding more examples where authors didn't worry about language now. For example I googled language in Stargate. Apparently they took language into account in the movie, but the makers of the TV series decided it wasn't worth worrying about it and made inhabitants of the worlds they visited speak English with no explanation.
     
  17. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    My views may be a tad bit extreme.

    But me? I am insulted by the universal translator idea. At least as a one liner to explain away a plot point. I would rather it isn't addressed. I am, in this case, likely watching something that is partially fake. So, I have some patients to give for small errors. A universal translator makes me think that the writer was scared people were going to call bullshit and just wrote one line to hide from such criticism. Thing is, once you introduce such a device. I want to know more. So not knowing more I consider insulting. It is like saying. "HEY! I GOT CAKE! BUT YOU CAN'T HAVE ANY!"

    So the general theory, in my opinion. This concept either is or isn't a plot point. If it is a plot point. Don't pull punches. Dive into it full force. If it isn't a plot point, no reason to distract your readers with it.

    I expected my rant to be longer. I kind of finished though. I mean the above sort of says it well enough. lol
     
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  18. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    To answer Wynn a little bit, there's two aspects to the UT that need to be considered. One is the translation. The other is understanding languages never before heard / encountered. The first we could do now. Some phones can translate for you. But they can only translate from a recognised language to another. I used this device as my translator in my book All The Stars a Grave. A simple device that listens, translates feeds the translation to the speaker's ear, and which everyone else has. So he then replies in Englis and their translators do the same for his words. Simple. And it was actually a part of the plot.

    The second part is where Star Trek goes off the rails science wise. The "everything has common underlying syntax etc elements and computers can decode this and turn alien waffle into English." This makes no sense to me speaking as a trekkie, so I definately didn't want this included as part of the plot. This should have been just hand wavium stuff. I'd rather have no explanation than a ridiculous one.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  19. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    Funny enough. I thought about this problem before and was content to never solve it. Then a solution fell into my lap.

    To sum it briefly. The idea is that in my world. There is magic. And some people, with a high enough level of magic produce like a soul echo(Probably a lame name, but go with it.) The soul echo is in a sense a magical echo of their words. So other magical people can hear the echo along with the sound. Which is sort of gives the magical listener an understanding of something they wouldn't otherwise understand. Neat?
     
  20. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    Language done bad is worse than the existence of "universal translators". I really doubt that universal translators will apply to all situations and many social things are contained in references that go deeper than the actual words itself. I might be speaking the same language as another person, but they will not understand anything I am actually saying if it is esoteric. Discussing min-max strategies aloud is a sure-fire way to get some people wondering "Is that even English?" Or just general conversations with friends.

    "Gah, fire racked. Free?" / "Lawl ya, derped. Seven yet?" / "IS Six." / "Bit! Send vite."

    In all seriousness - I will overlook a few bad things in fantasy /sci-fi because for the sake of clarity and brevity, it is just easier to let it slide. Does it make sense, no. Many things do not make sense, but I still find enjoyment where I can.
     
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  21. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    In a lot of my stories which are SciFi but not first/early contact, I will make a reference to "Galactic Standard" as a language, and then leave it at that.
     
  22. tonguetied
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    tonguetied Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why does this thread make me think of the Star Trek movie where Voyager crashes into an alien spaceship and takes on a new mission?

    If we can hand wave interstellar travel then something as doable as learning a way to communicate with an alien species should be acceptable without a lot of fanfare.
     
  23. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    In Star Wars everyone speaks "basic". Whether basic is English or not isn't a question that could be answered in the framework, because England doesn't exist.
     
  24. CristianOrtt
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    CristianOrtt Member

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    I didn't bother to read all reply's to this so forgive me if I repeat anything. I think that if anyone identifies the lack of translation as a hole in the plot, they can just as easily fill it in with their own mind. I know how you feel because I used to want to put in every detail and my stories began to drag. As a reader, it's understood that some things are self-explanatory and that things happen off-page without explanation. I imagine you could write a quick explanation as to how they'd understand each other, maybe a couple of sentences or so. Then again I'm not sure most readers will care or notice, unless they are hardcore sci-fi analyzers that require everything to be physically and technologically sound in theory. There are very few of those. There will be a similar issue in the book I'm currently working on, but I'm not worried about the translation factor. The way I see it, I mention specific time frames only once in a while. So longer amounts of time could have passed that weren't mentioned at times, they could have learned to understand each other then. Or maybe there is a translator that's not mentioned at all. Or maybe on the off chance that these two civilizations had a meeting in the past that neither recorded and one just happened to affect the other and their languages developed very similarly or exactly the same. Lol. The last one seems far fetched, but as I said, I think the reader will either pass it over completely or fill in the blanks. Most likely with the fact that there is an unmentioned translation technique.
     
  25. CristianOrtt
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    CristianOrtt Member

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    By the way, I have to say, this is a phenomenal concept for explaining translation. I haven't ever read anything similar to it before so I just wanted to commend you on your "soul echo" creation.
     
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