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Colt
2003-Mar-01, 07:22 AM
I agree with most of you that the UT in Star Trek is fairly rediculous. But isn't it possible that we could one day have computers fast enough to decipher a new language almost as it comes in? Most languages here on Earth are similar in some way. This is how we crack codes; we look for the similarities and patterns within the code which match that of the origin language. For the simple parts of languages I think that a computer could handle it with relative ease and perhaps figure out the more complex bits just by context.

A UT would most likely work best like it was shown in one of TOS movies, where Kirk and McCoy are in the Klingon senate ("Don't wait for the translation!"). We are already coming upon this type of technology here on Earth. You speak and then the computer translates it and speaks and then it interprets the other's response and replies to you. Any thoughts on this subject? -Colt

informant
2003-Mar-01, 11:03 AM
Are you referring to a universal translator for known languages, or for unknown languages?
There's a gulf of difference, I think.

Chuck
2003-Mar-01, 03:14 PM
Even if the Star Trek translator could translate what an alien said after hearing less than a minute of speech, how would it translate the human's response back to alien without ever having heard the alien versions of the human's words?

g99
2003-Mar-01, 04:34 PM
On 2003-03-01 10:14, Chuck wrote:
Even if the Star Trek translator could translate what an alien said after hearing less than a minute of speech, how would it translate the human's response back to alien without ever having heard the alien versions of the human's words?




Exactly! It would only be able to translate thwe words it has heared. Languages have millions of pronounciations and subtle variations in tone and pitch.

Just think of your own first language (whatever that may be). You brain in one instant takes in tone, pitch, context, and even the knowlege of different accents and word pronounciations. All in real time. No matter how smart you are you can only translate those words you hear.
A first year Spanish strudent will not know how to reply with as many words and as fluently as a second year, but they can probobly understand the language the same amount.

Think of english. How does a computer understand context? How do you know the difference between sale and sail? They are pronounced the same, only the words surrounding it will tell the difference.

Some of you on this board are programmers. How would you tell a computer to listen to the words before and after and then figure out which word it means? And on top of that it will be hearing the language for the first time.

I doub't that we will see a "Universal Translator" like in star trek. I would think more like a "Universal trainer". Something that will use some basic understanding of thier language or a common theme and teach them our langugae or vice versa. Yah it would take a few weeks, but it is much more plausible than a instant translator. What do you think?

informant
2003-Mar-01, 07:25 PM
The reason why I asked if the language to be translated is supposed to be known or not is that I find that there's an important difference between the two situations.

There are two aspects to translation:
1) doing simultaneous translation of known languages,
2) decyphering new languages

A type 1 automatic translator is at least conceivable. Nevertheless, I agree with the points made by previous posters that a good translation must be sensitive to context, to cultural habits, to body language, etc. For the time being, I think that human beings can take all this into account much better than a machine could.

The type 2 automatic translator is, to me, something that has never made much sense, and makes less and less sense the more I think about it.
In order to break a code, you must at least know what language it is written in. In order to decypher an ancient language, you must be able to at least compare it with another. There are still today ancient languages that have never been decypered. Why? Because we've never found an analog of the 'Rosetta Stone' for them.
In order to break a code or a language you must know something about it. It may be very little, but you can't just start from nothing.
Even when there are clues, there's a lot of guesswork and intuition involved -- which I think a human being is more equipped to do than a machine.
Suppose my spaceship runs into a whole new alien civilization. They start talking, I turn on my translator, and... And what? How is the translator going to guess what they're saying if we know absolutely nothing about their language?
Maybe something could be inferred from body language, and behavior, but that would take time; I don't believe that it could be done instantaneously, because it's bound to be a process filled with trial and error, and many gaps too.

Added: the only way to circumvent the problem of instant translation is by assuming that some kind of telepathy is possible.
In Star Trek - The Next Generation, Counsellor Deeana Troi was a telepath, and this was a clever way to solve the problem of communicating with entirely new civilizations. Unfortunately, I don't think that the writers of the show ever fully realised what was at stake; we kept seeing brand new aliens speaking perfect English as soon as they opened hailing frequencies. A lost opportunity.


<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: informant on 2003-03-01 14:35 ]</font>

Colt
2003-Mar-01, 07:44 PM
I thougth some of you would understand the reference to Kirk and McCoy with the Klingon senate. In that scene the translator actually takes time to translate the words and then it sounds like a computer. This is about the only place in Trek that I can remember doing this.

They originally conceived of the UT as a gimmick otherwise they would have to keep coming up with a new language every time they found a new civilization. -Colt

g99
2003-Mar-01, 07:50 PM
On 2003-03-01 14:25, informant wrote:

Added: the only way to circumvent the problem of instant translation is by assuming that some kind of telepathy is possible.
In Star Trek - The Next Generation, Counsellor Deeana Troi was a telepath, and this was a clever way to solve the problem of communicating with entirely new civilizations. Unfortunately, I don't think that the writers of the show ever fully realised what was at stake; we kept seeing brand new aliens speaking perfect English as soon as they opened hailing frequencies. A lost opportunity.



But with this you still have the same problem. You still think in the same language you speak. So the aliens will be thinking in Alienese. Still won't work.

P.S. Colt, i know what you are talking about. It is In the Star Trek 6. But i havn't seen the movie for a while so i can't remember the translation in the scene.

sacrelicious
2003-Mar-01, 08:23 PM
even for known languages it would be a problem. see, computers are fine at dealing with science, which ultimately boil down to mathematical calculations. they are notoriously incapable of handling artistic matters, however. translation, if done right, is an art, not a science.

see, many phrases and metaphors tend to fall flat, or mean something completely different, when they are translated from one language to another (which assumes they are also being translated from one culture to another).

now I don't speak any foreign languages, but I can provide an example of american slang versus british slang to illustrate my point:

the british slang term '********', directly translated means 'testicles', however it is used in the same way as 'bullsh*t' is in america. let's see how a computer would translate this british sentence:

untranslated
"that's ********, I know you've hidden that paper somewhere!"

translated word for word
"that's tesicles, I know you've hidden the paper somewhere!"

the sentence now sounds ridiculous, but let's see it done right:

translated using context and inference as a guide, and then using creativity to convey the most accurate tone

"that's bullsh*t, I know you've hidden the paper somewhere!"

and that's just one word! and in the same basic language even! just imagine all the "intergalactic incidents" that would result from having machines doing the translating.

informant
2003-Mar-01, 08:42 PM
On 2003-03-01 14:50, g99 wrote:


On 2003-03-01 14:25, informant wrote:

Added: the only way to circumvent the problem of instant translation is by assuming that some kind of telepathy is possible.
In Star Trek - The Next Generation, Counsellor Deeana Troi was a telepath, and this was a clever way to solve the problem of communicating with entirely new civilizations. Unfortunately, I don't think that the writers of the show ever fully realised what was at stake; we kept seeing brand new aliens speaking perfect English as soon as they opened hailing frequencies. A lost opportunity.



But with this you still have the same problem. You still think in the same language you speak. So the aliens will be thinking in Alienese. Still won't work.


I was assuming that the telepaths would be able to ďlistenĒ to othersís thoughts in the form of pure concepts, rather than words. Itís debatable, of course, and I donít really know anything about how telepathy is supposed to work.



On 2003-03-01 15:23, sacrelicious wrote:
and that's just one word! and in the same basic language even! just imagine all the "intergalactic incidents" that would result from having machines doing the translating.


That could be a good topic for a SF story. In fact, I read one like that a while ago, although it was intended as a parody. /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_smile.gif


<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: informant on 2003-03-01 15:43 ]</font>

Donnie B.
2003-Mar-01, 09:20 PM
Anyone who thinks that a UT is feasible is monolingual.

I've done a fair amount of translation of colloquial French into English. It's very difficult to make the result seem "natural" in the target language, especially if the original includes puns, wordplay, rhymes, or slang.

And this is for two languages that are well-understood and documented, and after a fair amount of study on the part of the translator!

Consider: the problem of a UT is far more difficult than the deciphering of Egyptian heiroglyphs. But the latter baffled experts for decades, and was only solved after the discovery of a Rosetta stone (the Rosetta stone, in fact) that included identical text in three languages, two of which were already known. Even then, it was no breeze to understand the heiroglyphs; it took years.

Now imagine that the original language you're feeding your UT isn't even human, so it may be based on an entirely different way of thinking and of living, without even the universal human concepts (e.g. for eating and drinking, locomotion, color, sound, emotions...)

The reality is, it will take a very long and determined effort for two alien races even to begin to understand one another, and then it will happen only if both sides work at it in an interactive process. It's preposterous to think a computer algorithm could embody this process and carry it out after a few seconds of one-way communication.

It's a very helpful plot device, though... /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_smile.gif

Zap
2003-Mar-01, 10:00 PM
Has anyone ever noticed that a lot of movies and TV shows that have humans encountering aliens, the aliens speak english? I see a lot of conversations like this:

HUMAN 1: Whoa, I think we've landed on an extrasolar planet!!!
HUMAN 2: *Gasp* What in the world is that?!?!
ALIEN: Wazzup! Don't mind me I'm just on my way to grab a whopper with fries in my new SUV.

I mean, come on, what are the chances they'll have the same food, same vehicles, same exact language on another completely different planet? A lot of the movies and shows that have conversations like that are more juvenille, but still...its bad astronomy.

g99
2003-Mar-01, 11:15 PM
One of my fave's is when the people in trek are using the universal translator and how the alien's speak. Somehow the translater also synchs their lips to form english words also. It is not like a dubbed Godzilla movie, but like they were really speaking english.

sacrelicious
2003-Mar-01, 11:33 PM
and if there is anyone here that still believes that good translation is easy enough for a computer to handle, I redirect you to these pages:

http://www.engrish.com

http://www.planettribes.com/allyourbase/index.shtml

Dickenmeyer
2003-Mar-02, 12:22 AM
I know I used to make my Latin teacher crazy in High School because I would take the poetry or whatever our translation assignment was and then swap the Latin idioms for more appropriate English ones. I took to writing the "correct" translation at the top and the "idiomatically adjusted" one below. Latin and French and English are so closely related to one another that an alien could probably correctly consider them to be dialects of one another so I don't see how any alien language could be quickly translated with any confidence regardless of how fast and brainy one's computers are. I think communication could be established sooner or later but clarity and the subtle nuances that language can convey to native speakers would be a long
time coming.

Donnie B.
2003-Mar-02, 02:07 AM
Let's not forget that our languages are all designed to be spoken via the human lung/throat/mouth anatomy, and detected by human hearing. Both function in an atmosphere of a particular composition and range of temperatures and pressures, and consist of complex pressure variations in the range of (roughly) 20Hz to 20,000Hz.

What are the chance that our first alien encounter is with a species that uses sound to communicate at all, let alone in a way that matches our parameters? Will we even recognize their form of communication at all?

(Apologies for, in the description above, ignoring the speakers of ASL and other sign languages... but that's a good example of how other media may be used for communication.)

Krel
2003-Mar-02, 04:03 AM
It is commond knowledge that all star traveling races use Bablefish for translations. Although some will use Translator Microbes. /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_biggrin.gif

David.

g99
2003-Mar-02, 04:19 AM
Another problem is just the shear number of languages we have.

The earth currently (under a conservative estimate) has about 6,000 distinct languages. Most of them are spoken by less than 100 people. Some are only spoken by a single person. While many of the languages come from a common ancestor, some are tottaly different. Just look at a asian language and a romance language. There are almost no similarities.

It would take forever just to figure out which dialect the alien is speaking. Then once the UT is callibrated to them, what happens when another alien comes by with a different dialect or language?

P.S. In one episode of Voyager (the one where they are stuck in a void type place with a bunch of other ships and form a ragtag navy.) they come about aliens with no discernable language. So the doctor teaches them to use music to speak. They in a short amount of time create a complex language and teach it to others of their species.
So every once in a while Star Trek does do soemthing right in that the aliens don't always speak English. But don't worry they went right back to the same wrong-doingness the next episode. /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_smile.gif

Darasen
2003-Mar-02, 05:51 AM
The most ridiculous use of the UT I ever saw was in an episode of Voyager when Janeway is speaking to 4 different people each with a different language and the one UT translates the conversation for everyone to their own language. Thatís a strech even for Sci-fi IMHO.

Darasen

russ_watters
2003-Mar-02, 11:12 PM
At the very least, an automatic translator would need to hear the entire sentence before translating it. Even in English's closest relative (German) the sentence structure is different: the verb and subject are reversed:

Sprechen ze (sp?) Deutch?
Speak you German?

And it only gets worse for eastern languages which (so I hear) speak in metaphores, simlies, allegories, and symbolism. Even with a linguistic expert translating, a translation is often still unintelligible.

Colt
2003-Mar-02, 11:28 PM
"Sprechen sie Deutsche?" Actually.
"Fuerchten sie mich!" is another good one, "Fear you me!" But it all works differently. This is why online translators have problems. -Colt

captain swoop
2003-Mar-03, 09:38 AM
On 2003-03-01 14:44, Colt wrote:
I thougth some of you would understand the reference to Kirk and McCoy with the Klingon senate. In that scene the translator actually takes time to translate the words and then it sounds like a computer. This is about the only place in Trek that I can remember doing this.

They originally conceived of the UT as a gimmick otherwise they would have to keep coming up with a new language every time they found a new civilization. -Colt



And the scene where the rest of the crew are trying to get a Bird of Prey past the Klingon security. they can'y use the translator as the listening Klingons would know it was a machine so Uhura bluffs her way with real Klingon.

captain swoop
2003-Mar-03, 09:40 AM
The basic thing you have to rememeber about an acxtion based Sci Fi show is the needs of the plot. Who would want to watch an entire series of Sci Fi show where all they do is learn 'tourist' lingo?

If you have a 50 minute slot you don't want to watch a language class no do you?

informant
2003-Mar-03, 11:06 AM
On 2003-03-01 23:19, g99 wrote:
Another problem is just the shear number of languages we have.

The earth currently (under a conservative estimate) has about 6,000 distinct languages. Most of them are spoken by less than 100 people. Some are only spoken by a single person. While many of the languages come from a common ancestor, some are tottaly different. Just look at a asian language and a romance language. There are almost no similarities.



Another silly thing is how it's always implied that each alien species only speaks one language, and only has one culture -- when even on Earth there are so many different languages, and so many cultures.

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: informant on 2003-03-03 06:07 ]</font>

kucharek
2003-Mar-03, 11:37 AM
On 2003-03-02 18:28, Colt wrote:
"Sprechen sie Deutsche?" Actually.
"Fuerchten sie mich!" is another good one, "Fear you me!" But it all works differently. This is why online translators have problems. -Colt

Finally a thread on German and I nearly miss it. /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_smile.gif
Actually, it is "Sprechen sie Deutsch?". Deutsche is either Germans or a female German.
On the main topic: Do you relly would like to follow a SF show where they alwys spend 95% of the time to figure out communication problems? /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_smile.gif
That's one of the main threads in many of Stanislaw Lem's books, the difficulty or impossibility to communicate with a totally different culture.
I can't imagine a UT is possible. When you understand another language well, you don't do any translation at all. I'm pretty well in English, I even dream sometime in English. When I read, write, listen to or speak English, I don't translate. Ther is something I want to say and I express it in English. Someone says soemthing in English and I understand it. I don't translate it into German to understand. Every time I get insecure and start to translate, my understanding totally breaks down. IT#s pretty diffcult to follow a subtitled English movie. No subtitles is much better. And I'm a bad translator. When I've actually to translate a written text, I'm pretty bad.

Harald

Mainframes
2003-Mar-03, 11:45 AM
On 2003-03-03 04:38, captain swoop wrote:
And the scene where the rest of the crew are trying to get a Bird of Prey past the Klingon security. they can'y use the translator as the listening Klingons would know it was a machine so Uhura bluffs her way with real Klingon.


Actually it was the enterprise trying to sneak through klingon security in Star Trek 6. Minor nitpick /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_wink.gif

kucharek
2003-Mar-03, 11:46 AM
On 2003-03-01 02:22, Colt wrote:
A UT would most likely work best like it was shown in one of TOS movies, where Kirk and McCoy are in the Klingon senate ("Don't wait for the translation!").

Two days ago I saw the original of this in a movie about the Cuba crisis. Star Trek quotes from a UN security council meeting where the US ambassador Adlai Stevenson asks the Soviet Valerian Zorin if there are missiles on Cuba.

"Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Don't wait for the translation! Yes or no?"


http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=382

Harald

PS: That Stevenson quote on that website is great:


During his 1956 presidential campaign, a woman called out to him, "You have the vote of every thinking person!" Stevenson called back, "That's not enough, madam, we need a majority!"


<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: kucharek on 2003-03-03 06:48 ]</font>

David Hall
2003-Mar-03, 12:27 PM
I also doubt that a Star Trek style UT is possible, for the same reasons others have mentioned above, but I think it may eventually be possible to have computers that will analyze languages and over time be able to piece together translations of them. The biggest part of it is that there has to be a huge amount of input before strong correlations in vocabulary and grammar can be made. It might even be impossible unless there are a few starting points to go on, such as translations of a few common concrete nouns. Something like a Rosetta stone, as mentioned above may be necessary for large scale translation.

So I do think it's possible in a sense. Man has been able to decode dead languages over time through simple correlation and a few starting points. It's just taken a very long time to do it. If computing and AI ability gets advanced enough, then electronic means might be able to take over what is already done by human brainpower. It's the TV version of the things being able to translate flawlessly after only a few seconds contact that's the problem.

----

Two more points. I remember reading somewhere of another reason why the translator works so fast in Star Trek. I think it was described that when contact is made, the computers on board most ships do a kind of language handshake and tranfer large amounts of data to each other, letting the UT's on both ships learn how to communicate with each other in just a few seconds. Of course, this assumes that both sides have UT technology and a similar method of deploying it.

I think Larry Niven used the same idea when Louis Wu met the Trinocs in There is a Tide

And to russ_watters: My experience with Japanese has shown me that English actually uses more idioms, symbolism, metaphor, slang, and cultural references than many other languages. Every language has them of course, but I don't think most English speakers realize just how much of it is in their daily speech. I'm forever having to explain things like "handwave something away" (a favorite when talking to HB's), or "knock it off" or such. OTOH, I don't seem to run into Japanese idioms that much. Another example: A while back I had to explain to someone what "Bootylicious" means. That was an interesting one. /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_rolleyes.gif

captain swoop
2003-Mar-03, 02:39 PM
On 2003-03-03 06:06, informant wrote:
[quote]
On 2003-03-01 23:19, g99 wrote:
Another problem is just the shear number of languages we have.

The earth currently (under a conservative estimate) has about 6,000 distinct languages. Most of them are spoken by less than 100 people. Some are only spoken by a single person. While many of the languages come from a common ancestor, some are tottaly different. Just look at a asian language and a romance language. There are almost no similarities.



Another silly thing is how it's always implied that each alien species only speaks one language, and only has one culture -- when even on Earth there are so many different languages, and so many cultures.


And when they beam down at random it's always on the right bit of the planet, they seem to forget just how big a planet is! And planetary populations are always so small.

I suppose the idea of one culture and language is that any planet advanced enough to have technology like the Federation is going to have one pretty dominant culture i.e. the one that has the technology.

kucharek
2003-Mar-03, 02:49 PM
Well, maybe in a few hundred years, English is spoken all over the world. Or, to use a quote from Prince Charles, bad English.

Harald

jokergirl
2003-Mar-03, 07:37 PM
On 2003-03-03 07:27, David Hall wrote:
Two more points. I remember reading somewhere of another reason why the translator works so fast in Star Trek. I think it was described that when contact is made, the computers on board most ships do a kind of language handshake and tranfer large amounts of data to each other, letting the UT's on both ships learn how to communicate with each other in just a few seconds. Of course, this assumes that both sides have UT technology and a similar method of deploying it.


Not to mention this assumes two entirely different computer systems using exactly the same protocols (the whole stack, from the signal specifics to the applications). It's not as if there were only one right way of encoding anything. True, though, the same thing applies for the vidphone (On screen, anyone?) too.
But maybe there's a universal protocol translator too, somewhere in Trek space...

/phpBB/images/smiles/icon_wink.gif

tracer
2003-Mar-03, 11:15 PM
On 2003-03-03 06:37, kucharek wrote:
Actually, it is "Sprechen sie Deutsch?".
Actually, it is "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?". The "Sie" meaning the formal you is always capitalized. A lowercase "sie" means either "she" or "they" -- so with a lowercase "sie" the question would mean "Do they speak German?", not "Do you speak German?".

russ_watters
2003-Mar-04, 02:19 AM
Actually, it is "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?".
Aye carumba, high school was a long time ago...

Colt
2003-Mar-04, 07:11 AM
Not too long ago for me..

The thing about computers even transferring information is that you would have to count on them being able to understand each other, i.e. using the same computer language. Maybe they use different musical tones to signify letters and numbers instead of 1's and 0's.. Anyway, goodnight. -Colt

kucharek
2003-Mar-04, 08:04 AM
On 2003-03-03 18:15, tracer wrote:


On 2003-03-03 06:37, kucharek wrote:
Actually, it is "Sprechen sie Deutsch?".
Actually, it is "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?". The "Sie" meaning the formal you is always capitalized. A lowercase "sie" means either "she" or "they" -- so with a lowercase "sie" the question would mean "Do they speak German?", not "Do you speak German?".

I knew, but I didn't wanted to go into the details of the written German. /phpBB/images/smiles/icon_razz.gif

Harald

jokergirl
2003-Mar-04, 05:39 PM
On 2003-03-04 02:11, Colt wrote:
Not too long ago for me..

The thing about computers even transferring information is that you would have to count on them being able to understand each other, i.e. using the same computer language. Maybe they use different musical tones to signify letters and numbers instead of 1's and 0's.. Anyway, goodnight. -Colt



That's what I meant with "signal specifics". Didn't want to go into the depths of the ISO/OSI system here, but you're right... this is the lowest layer, without this NOTHING works.
I would go a little further, even... it's not logical that all computers use even the binary system! Actually, trinary (0,1,-1 as possible states) would be less redundant, but they dropped it because it was not as easy to implement as binary (0,1). So there...

/phpBB/images/smiles/icon_wink.gif

Russ
2003-Mar-04, 07:47 PM
Actually, in a TNG episode, they addressed the inadaquacy of the UT. They ran across a culture that cited circumstances that were known culture wide as thier means of communication. The UT didn't pick up on this and it caused problems. The aliens kidnapped Picard and forced him to interact with the alien's captain until Picard figured out the "Frame Of Reference" for the alien language.

I thought the whole premis of the show was rather contrived but it proved that the writers at least acknowledged the possible short comings of the UT.

Chuck
2003-Mar-05, 01:57 AM
I remember that episode. I'd like to hear one of their scientists explain a new warp drive theory to a team of their engineers using only metaphors from their ancient history.

nebularain
2003-Mar-05, 05:36 AM
What I didn't understand about that episode was how the UT was able to translate the words they used. Or when the crew looks for references of those words, how did the computer have knowledge of that culture's names and stories in its memory bank for them to find?