My Favorite Trope

My favorite science fiction trope has got to be the translator organisms. (It is usually my answer to that “What thing would you like to have from science fiction?” question.) (Yeah I know that is pretty lame, but as an academic/nerd it just would be so cool.) I do realize that they are usually introduced as an object of convenience so the protagonist/reader can understand whoever is around them (much like Common is used in fantasy) but there is something inherently awesome about the ability to understand people you’ve never encountered before. I also like the different limitations that are put on them.

Disclaimer: My BA graduation is in a little over a week, so my next few posts are probably going to be of dubious quality. Starting the 21st however I will really have nothing going on in my life and no excuse for lame posts. Which should motivate me to spend actual time researching/thinking about them. So yay. I do have some big ones planned/started so please give up on me just yet. 

The translator microbes in Farscape are only capable of translating languages if they are inserted into a native speaker. When John Criton enters Moya the aliens he meets cannot understand him, just as he cannot understand them, until he is shot with the microbes. There is something satisfyingly equal about that. They are not given any upper-hand in that situation. I may be mistaken here, or maybe it just isn’t addressed in the books, but in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the babel fish are capable of translating any incoming signals, regardless of whether or not they’ve had exposure to them previously. (Again, I could be very wrong about that.) But then why don’t we understand the animals as well? Why do the translator whatevers make that distinction? It is an audible form of communication, isn’t that within their realm?

Also idioms, again in Farscape they do address that some of the things John says is not understood by the aliens because they don’t have equivalent concepts for them. But it doesn’t go both ways. Also idioms are one of the trickiest things to grasp when learning a language because a literal translation does not get the actual meaning of the phrase. So are these organisms able to grasp not just what we are saying, but what we mean, and translate it accordingly? (Smart little buggers, eh?) Then they are doing something much more than just translating the frequencies into patterns we recognize. They are listening, or for lack of a better term grokking, what it is that is being said.

In the end despite any complaints I have with them, I really want a translator bug thing in my head. It would make my Latin homework so much easier. I would just have to read it aloud and then BAM I would know what it means. Best parasite ever! (Also just saying, I prefer this type of translator to the TARDIS style field manipulation one. Don’t ask me why, but I do.)

(P.S. check out this cool page on xenolinguistics.)


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One response to “My Favorite Trope”

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