Universal translator glitch

As some of you may know, I've been taping and watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. I wasn't into any sci-fi before, so now I'm catching up, finding out what I've been missing. It's worth it, even though my sleep has been suffering. Today I feel a bit under-the-weather because I watched a couple episodes last night. I don't know what I'll do when I've taped and watched all the episodes--rent the movies? Watch the episodes again and look for subtleties or even memorize dialogue? (Joke! I'd never watch a movie to memorize dialogue! There are too many other things to memorize, including Japanese phrases and French vocabulary!)

Anyway, last night I was watching an episode of DS9 where Worf was explaining some Klingon concepts to Captain Sisko. I forgot the Klingon words, but basically, he said one word, and then said, "it's hard to translate." Then it occurred to me: what about the Universal Translator?

The Universal Translator is a Startrek thing: some unseen device that every alien has, which makes it possible for all of them to sit around, blab in their own language, and have others understand them perfectly. It's also the reason why they all speak English when we're watching it ;)

Which brings me back to the Klingon situation. I notice that in the show, they often show Klingons throwing out their phrases and words, and sometimes, if a non-Klingon has had exposure to their culture, then they would understand what it means. And if not, then the Klingons or some enlightened non-Klingon would explain.

But does this mean that the Universal Translator has a glitch? If it is supposed to translate everything anybody says, then why are the Klingons exempt--how come they're allowed to use their language and circumvent the Universal Translator? Why would Worf or anyone else say a word, then say it's difficult to translate, or not translate it at all? It's definitely a flaw of that Universal Translator concept. Thus, it's not so universal after all.


Jon Konrath said...

The Universal Translator is supposed to work on brain waves, but doesn't work well when there are cultural metaphors in the language that it doesn't know about. (There was a whole TNG episode about this.) I'm sure that the Klingons, with a really rich culture and a lot of traditions and dialects, it could sometimes throw the translator for a loop.

Or it could be that the people that write the scripts wanted a situation that could go bad and then get fixed in under an hour. ;)

Mad Minerva said...

Hm, I'd never thought about the Universal Translator that way!

Ah well, "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine" remain my favorite new Trek series. Don't bother with the last and worst, "Enterprise."

Live long and prosper!

Anonymous said...

There was a TNG episode about that? I thought I saw them all (or most of them). Actually, there is a very interesting and entertaining DS9 episode where Quark, his brother, and nephew end up in Roswell in the 1940's, and you can hear them speaking Ferengi cuz their universal translator isn't working. The humans' speech sounds bizarre, too, cuz we're hearing it via the Ferengi's perception. So they had to fix their universal translators, which were deep in their ears. It was a really cool episode.

MM: You see? This blog *does* have educational value after all. ;)

My fave is still Voyager, and they really screwed up Enterprise royally. What a lost opportunity!

Jon Konrath said...

The TNG episode was "Darmok" (http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Darmok_%28episode%29)

Anonymous said...

Thanks--I'll figure out if I've seen that one and overlooked the UT explanation. I think we've really entered Nerdland at this point.

Anonymous said...


Finally someone who has the same dilemma I do.

Margaret Larkin said...

I'm sure there are Trek fans out there who've discussed this at length--I just don't participate in such messageboards, etc.