When Translation Doesn’t Work

Phillip and I watched a great trio of episodes from Farscape last night. In them, John Crichton and the crew of Moya find a wormhole that leads to Earth – first in the 1980s, and then in present time (2003). They were three of the best episodes I’d seen in the 4th season.

There are several great scenes in which Chiana seduces a young John Crichton (in the 1980s). I couldn’t help wondering, though, how they were speaking to each other. Chiana has her translator microbes, so she would have no trouble understanding John. But how is she speaking English to John?

It’s a fundamental problem with any science fiction story. How do beings from other planets, with completely different languages, communicate with each other? Fortunately, it’s fiction, and writers come up with ways to get around that problem. Star Trek has its universal translators. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy has babelfish. And Farscape has translator microbes.

Or, you could solve the problem the Time Tunnel way and have soldiers of The Roman Empire speak American English and not explain why.

It doesn’t matter. It’s just a device to keep the story moving without getting bogged down with trivia – like why all space ship floors have gravity, or why space ships always meet on the same plane of orientation. None of it matters, and this post isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

Last night’s episodes started me thinking about when universal translation devices conveniently don’t work.

I seem to remember times in Star Trek when Captain Picard impresses Klingon warriors by cursing at them in Klingon. But, I wonder, how do the Klingons know he’s speaking Klingon? Don’t their universal translators make everything he says sound like Klingon?

(Actually, I have a theory about that. Any device that translates your words while you’re speaking would make you look like a dubbed movie, wouldn’t it? I suppose that whenever Picard’s mouth syncs up with his words, the Klingons can tell he’s speaking Klingon.)

There’s a terrific fan site named Farscape World. It seems to have been updated only while the show was on the air, but it has great episode synopses, commentary, and trivia. I’ve visited it often while we’ve been watching the DVDs. I visited it this afternoon to find out what that Jack o’Lantern face was supposed to be. (Phillip and I even paused the DVD to figure it out, but couldn’t.) The site didn’t have an answer, but it did clear up the language issue for me.

Apparently, John has been teaching Aeryn to speak English. (I guess I missed that detail.) Chiana has learned some English from him, too. And Aeryn and Chiana both learned some more from watching Wheel of Fortune and Sesame Street on Earth TV. All D’Argo was able to learn was “Yes”, “No” and “Bite me”. (Really, what else does he need?) Rygel didn’t seem to have learned any English at all. And, somehow, Utu-Noranti is able to speak English fluently. (But she’s still a mystery to us and the crew.)

Yes, that cleared it up for me – for about twenty minutes. Then I started wondering how you teach someone your language when they have microbes in their brain that translates everything you say into their language.

But, of course, it’s science fiction. I doesn’t matter how translator microbes work. It only matters that they do work – and that they don’t work while you’re watching Sesame Street.

Oh, and I love the little touch of having Sikozu unable to tolerate translator microbes, and be smart enough to learn languages on her own.

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