The universal translator is a device used by many spacefaring races to render the speech of other species and nationalities into the user's native language. It is also known as the UT.
The UT has appeared in shipboard computer-based, hand-held, communicator-based, and subcutaneously-implanted versions as the technology has developed. The initial development of the UT used in the Federation owes in a large part to the work of linguist Hoshi Sato. (ENT: "Broken Bow", "In a Mirror, Darkly")
While generally effective by the 24th century in rendering most humanoids' languages, the universal translator still encountered problems at times, such as with the language of the Skrreeans, and the metaphor-based language of the Tamarians, which could be literally rendered, but lost the meaning of the metaphor necessary for proper understanding. The Breen language has also been observed to require manual calibration of Cardassian wristcomm-carried UT units. (TNG: "Darmok"; DS9: "Sanctuary", "Strange Bedfellows")
Certain verb tenses and moods of Dominionese and Cardăsda are also known to be omitted or mistranslated when these languages are rendered into Federation Standard, though the general meaning can still be understood. (DS9: "Statistical Probabilities"; Star Trek: Sigils and Unions--The Thirteenth Order)
Theories of operationEdit
TrekBBS author Mistral describes an apocalyptic scenario in which the exposure of Federation citizens to the universal translator is so ubiquitous that language on Earth devolved into a mishmash of various languages with a very underdeveloped grammatical structure only made comprehensible by the artificial support of the universal translator. When the device failed planetwide, the effect was much like the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel: people found themselves unable to communicate with each other and society collapsed until a new language developed. (Remnants)
In the Star Trek: Sigils and Unions continuity, use of the universal translator is somewhat restricted. Users of both Federation and Cardassian translators are able to place their translators in a language-acquisition mode where the device slowly reduces its level of assistance as the language-learner gains proficiency and begins to directly understand and actively form thoughts in the new language. Lieutenant Commander Makis Spirodopoulos, for instance, took advantage of this feature during his term at the Lessek camp to begin learning Cardăsda, and as he progresses, he comprehends more and more of his Cardassian companions' speech in their native language without translation. (Star Trek: Sigils and Unions--The Thirteenth Order)
There are also restrictions on the use of universal translators around minors in order to maintain proper language acquisition. Children cannot receive subcutaneous translator implants, and law on many worlds mandates that only speakers of non-official languages use the UT in public; this ensures that minors become thoroughly grounded in their native languages.
Interestingly enough, however, these same restrictions led to the opportunity for distinctive dialects such as DMZ border speech to appear, which while still having regular rules and structure, take heavy influence from other species' languages due to minors' contact with these foreign languages. Just as in times of old, these children and adolescents often develop something of a pidgin or modified dialect. Diversity of languages in modern time therefore is at its greatest in these border areas rather than the core worlds of most political entities.
- Universal translator article at Memory Alpha, the canon Star Trek wiki.
- Universal translator article at Memory Beta, the non-canon Star Trek wiki.
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