Communion Of Dreams


Say what?

‘Babelfish’ to translate alien tongues could be built If we ever make contact with intelligent aliens, we should be able to build a universal translator to communicate with them, according to a linguist and anthropologist in the US.

Such a “babelfish”, which gets its name from the translating fish in Douglas Adams‘s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, would require a much more advanced understanding of language than we currently have. But a first step would be recognising that all languages must have a universal structure, according to Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, US.

Color me dubious. Deacon’s notion, as presented at AbSciCon 2008, is basically that any language will be tied to descriptions of the physical universe in some way. As reported in the NewScientist article above, this would allow for some distant computer/software to do a machine translation.

Well, sure – keep it open-ended enough, and just about anything is possible if you go far enough in the future. Clarke’s maxim about technology and magic comes to mind.

But we have a lot of ground to cover, first. Are there technologically advanced civilizations beyond Earth? If so, where are they? Do they even perceive the universe the same way we do? If so, do they have something resembling language, whether it be spoken, written, farted, or spit? Or do they communicate by telepathy, electrical discharge, or some other means outside of our normal sensory perception? Do they experience time the same way we do?

We can’t even build a good algorithm for doing human language translations, with languages well understood and cultures which are compatible, among members of our own species. Anyone who has tried to use one will know what I am talking about. Let’s use the current real-world version of Babel Fish to translate that last sentence, into German, and then back into English. We start with:

Anyone who has tried to use one will know what I am talking about.

Which becomes:

Jedermann, das versucht hat, ein zu verwenden, weiß, über was ich spreche.

Which is pretty good, to my rusty memory of idiomatic German. Now, back into English:

Everyone, which tried to use knows, about which I speak.

You see the problem? And that’s using a standard translation software – which has undoubtedly been tweaked and adjusted time and time again. A commercial software program may give you a better result, but the fact remains that any business will not rely on said software – they’ll go to a human who is fluent in each language for a good translation. And that is with all the commercial forces at work to create a dependable, value-added translation software program. How the hell are we supposed to come up with something which will work with an alien ‘language’ with which we have no prior experience?

Sagan and all the other SF authors who have tackled this had it right: we’ll have to start with mathematics.

Jim Downey


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A friend was just commenting on the less-than-reliable nature of online translators this morning. He had found one that he could tell to go from “English” to “English” with no intermediate language. He put in the phrase “Thank you for shopping” and got back “be grateful you hence barter.” Something was lost in translation, I think!

Comment by Alix




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