Hello there! Grace:
Why is he speaking English? I thought we weren't on Earth. Eighth Doctor:
Oh, that's not English. The TARDIS takes care of that for you. As long as you're traveling with me, it automatically translates whatever language you hear.
Also known as a "Universal Translator", this is a special kind of Applied Phlebotinum
that automatically translates communication from the speaker's language into the listener's, thus removing those pesky "language barriers"
from between people of different countries, times, species or planets.
It is commonly used to Hand Wave
the appearance of Aliens Speaking English
, by implying that the aliens are actually speaking in their native tongue and their words are being automatically translated for the (in-universe) characters' benefit. This is distinct from a Translation Convention
, where the aliens appear to be speaking English solely for the audience's
We must, of course, assume that said microbes work either by imparting the ability to speak a common language (in which case, the characters
are using Translator Microbes
, but the audience
is really experiencing the Translation Convention
) or that the microbes substantially alter the listener's perceptions, as otherwise, they would appear to be dubbed over like in a foreign film rather than merely speaking English (a good example of this, sans aliens
, occurs near the start of the 1980s Dune
That said, given how closely lip movements will appear to match the words for a film which is dubbed very
well, it is not inconceivable that a translation done by super-advanced science might be so good as to make the discontinuity between lip movements and voice difficult to notice. Or perhaps they affect vision as well as hearing. Also don't forget that your brain lies to you all the time - you are seeing what you are expecting to see, so when you aren't really concentrating on watching the lips moving, you probably won't notice, especially if the microbes suppressed your visual recognition in that way. Of course, there is a bit of Willing Suspension of Disbelief
at work here, since it would be ridiculously hard from a production standpoint to film English-speaking actors and have them move their lips in a fake language, just to dub the same
actors' voices in English at the end anyway.
This trope not only predates television, it predates most literature
. One of the earliest known instances of it can be found in True History
by Lucian of Samosata. Written in the 2nd century AD, this story includes adventures in outer space, where everybody speaks Greek (of course). An even earlier example is The Gift of Tongues
given to the Apostles at Pentecost in The Acts of the Apostles
. After the Holy Spirit comes to them, they address a large crowd drawn from many different nations, and everybody hears them speaking his own language. The members of the crowd are astonished that the people doing this are all Gallileans (normally assumed to be uneducated rustics).
Almost all Trapped in Another World
stories will postulate that Translator Microbes are part of the magical nature of this other world. No justification is required or expected, although it's often good to have some kind of Hand Wave
to point out that it's not "realistic".
A well-done page on this is here
have a tendency to break down when faced with alien cuss words
. It is rare for them to state that their transport is overloaded with Anguilliformes
See also Aliens Speaking English
and Common Tongue
. Compare Bilingual Dialogue
. See also Omniglot
, when a character can do this by training or super power.
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Anime and Manga
- Tower of God: The Pocket multi-tools have a translator function so that everybody in the tower can understand each other. Since it's altogether several billion people, that is quite necessary.
- The Hinman in The Twelve Kingdoms act as Translator Microbes as a secondary function (their primary giving the owner kick ass martial art skills).
- This is Mokona's special power in Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle. Since the cast themselves are from 3 different worlds, if they get separated from him, they can't even understand each other.
- A similar thing happens in the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga. The Torumekians & Eftal peoples speak whatever the series has been translated into, whereas the Doroks speak a strange language written in apparently made-up characters. Very few characters are bilingual & rely on the telepathic powers of Psykers like Nausicaa or Chikuku to translate & are at a great loss without them.
- In Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?, the Zentradi are shown to be talking their own language for about half the movie. Then after capturing our heroes, the Zentradi archivist Exedor turns on a universal translator. Suddenly the Zentradi are speaking English (conveniently translated to Japanese for the Japanese audience's benefit).
- In Macross Frontier, the V-Type infection is caused by literal Translator Microbes, that allows the infected party to tap into the Vajra fold communication network/Hive Mind. The downside of this however is that the host's health deteriorates since the bacteria infects the brain, that is unless, they were infected before birth wherein the bacteria will instead live in the stomach/lower intestine with no ill effects to the host whatsoever.
- Mentioned in the Bonus Pages in Vol. 23 of Mahou Sensei Negima!.
- Fushigi Yuugi has Miaka, a Japanese teenager, in the midst of people in a book written in Chinese and a world reminiscent of Ancient China. Then again, who ever said that the world in the book was Ancient China itself?
- Like in Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, Yuuri of Kyou Kara Maou cannot understand a word anyone is saying to him in the magical world at first, until he gets zapped with language magic (or something, I dunno) and then he can understand everyone perfectly.
- Doraemon has a pocket dogu called "Hon'yaku-Konnyaku" (translation konjac). This piece of jelly allows one to understand and speak any known language after eating it. The duration is unknown. Doraemon also has a variety of flavors of konjac such as miso.
- In Zero no Tsukaima, Saito can't understand anything anyone is saying just after he is summoned to be Louise's familiar. Bothered by his nonstop babbling, Louise casts a silence spell on him. Instead, it magically translates everything for him.
- In Suisei no Gargantia, Chamber, the AI of the main character's mecha, can translate a newly encountered language, but it needs sample to analyze. The more contact it has with the language, the more fluent it becomes.
- This also happens in Ninja Senshi Tobikage, however, as a bit of a Deconstruction, it doesn't happen right away. Joe, Reni, and Mike aren't given theirs until a couple or so episodes later.
Comic Books & Strips
- In Silver Age DC comics (mainly Legion of Super-Heroes) alien characters either spoke a common language called Interlac, or used "telepathic earplugs" to understand each other.
- Former JLA member Manitou Raven, a time-displaced prehistoric shaman, would summon spider spirits called a word-weavers which he would place in his ear and his wife Dawn's in order to communicate with the Leaguers. For obvious reasons, Dawn made efforts to learn English on her own.
- In the Snarfquest comic strip, a goofy-looking critter called a gaggaleechnote gains the ability to communicate with everything due to a ring-granted Wish. It uses this power to play pranks on the other characters, but is forced to change its diet from blood to fruit juice note because "everything" includes prey.
- Spider Jerusalem was injected with a literal translator microbe in the Cyberpunk series Transmetropolitan
- In Atavar, the Kalen inject Atavar with a...thing... to realign his language neural centre, allowing him to speak their language.
- One of the many functions of power rings in Green Lantern.
- In the graphic novel Green Lantern: Secret Origins and possibly in other comics, Hal curses and swears and the ring goes "unable to translate".
- Katma Tui ran into a translation problem in the Alan Moore Green Lantern story "In Blackest Night" when attempting to recruit Rot Lop Fan, an alien whose species evolved without sight, into the Green Lantern Corps. Their language had no words pertaining to the concepts of sight, light or color, so her ring's translation feature couldn't interpret even the phrase "Green Lantern" into his language. He's convinced they're called the F-Sharp Bell Corps, and his chant refers to sounds and tones in place of light an colour.
- Also, though they're supposedly programmed with every language in the Universe, there are exceptions, such as the Vegan languages (the Guardians have no jurisdiction in that system) and the language of the Indigo Tribe.
- In the X-Men books, Doug Ramsey has the mutant ability to translate languages, both human and computer.
- It's implied that the kids' costumes in Power Pack have universal translators built in.
- New 52: When Supergirl first arrives on Earth, she can only understand Kryptonian, so only Superman and a girl named Siobhan Smythe can communicate with her. Siobhan can, through magic, become fluent in any language after hearing a few words. She demonstrates with both Kryptonian and birdsong. Later, Supergirl, Black Banshee, and Siobhan's brother are able to understand each other in Black Banshee's mindscape, but not in the real world.
- In Under The Northern Lights Twilight Sparkle knows a spell, developed using combined unicorn and zebra magics, that temporarily learns a language from a native speaker instantly. It has some minor issues: you automatically gain the "teacher's" dialect and vocabulary, and the casting process is potentially embarrassing. Of course, Twilight causes misunderstandings due to the latter.
- In Children Of Time, Sherlock Holmes is intrigued by the TARDIS's translation capabilities.
- A cliché in fan stories of The Lord of the Rings is to have an English-speaking girl fall into Middle-earth. Most of these stories ignore the difference between English and Westron, so fans can only guess if there is magic translation, or if the author thinks that the two languages are similar. Fans who read Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings know that English is only a Translation Convention for Westron, the Common Speech of Middle-earth.
Only a few stories acknowledge the language difference. One way is to put a Language Barrier. The other way is to describe the translation.
- Among The Eorlingas transforms Veronica into a horse, then dumps her in Rohan. She can understand people, but this confuses her, because people in Rohan should speak Rohirric or Westron, and not any language that she knows. Also, she can understand other horses, and other horses can understand her, but people cannot understand her.
- The story titled Lothíriel is about a Lothíriel from Germany. When she enters Middle-earth, she suddenly knows Westron. The magic does not translate anything; it only causes her to know another language. Lothíriel still can't read the local alphabets, nor speak Sindarin, nor Rohirric, unless she learns them the hard way.
- In The Games of the Gods, Rachel and Kari failed to notice that English and Sindarin are different languages, until chapter 12, "Realization", when Rachel discovers her "internal translator". She eventually learns to toggle it on and off. The translator also knows Westron and Quenya.
- Time Will Tell waits until chapter 27 to explain how Jorryn can talk to anyone in Middle-earth. During her first days in the Shire, the ill Jorryn muttered in English. Gandalf performed a spell to switch Jorryn's language. Jorryn now speaks Westron, but may have completely forgotten English.
- Somewhat highlighted in Bait and Switch (and the Foundry mission it adapts) when the USS Bajor's universal translator has a second or so of trouble with the Gorn language, kicking in in mid-word. The main cast, despite being mostly nonhumans, are indicated to be actually speaking English most of the time rather than using the translator.
- In the movie The Last Starfighter, one of the first things that happens to the hero once he arrives at the Starfighter base is a small disk attached to his lapel that translates brain waves so he hears perfect English, even though that's not what's actually being spoken. The movie then switches to Translation Convention in a later scene.
- Subverted in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country where the crew of the Enterprise, trying to get past Klingon border guards in order to rescue Kirk and McCoy, don't use the universal translator because the Klingons would somehow be able to tell. The fact that the Klingons didn't notice the really slow and rough translations from Uhura as she thumbed her way through an English-Klingon dictionary must mean that the universal translator is pretty awful.
Uhura: We art thy freighter... Ursva. Six weeks out of... Kronos... We art delivering food... things and... supplies to Rura Penthe...
- The novelization reveals that the border guards actually let the Enterprise through out of pity, believing that the Ursva's captain was simply a particularly inept smuggler.
- He also decides to give them a little message in smuggler's code, so the 'smugglers' will know that he wasn't fooled one bit, thus explaining the nonsensical 'joke' he tells as a signoff. That whole scene makes so much more sense in the novelization.
- Nichelle Nichols objected to the above version of the scene, feeling that Uhura, being a communications officer would be fluent in many different languages. However, her request to change the scene was turned down.
- This was likely the reason why Zoe Saldana's Uhura in the remake had no problem talking with the Klingons without any universal translators, despite claiming to be "rusty". Then again, she hasn't been out of the Academy for very long, so the knowledge is probably still fresh in her mind.
- In Battlefield Earth, the Psychlos have a device that can teach humans their language, which they only use on one human because they didn't consider the "man-animals" intelligent enough to teach, despite all contrary evidence.
- The old Disney film The Cat From Outer Space has it's leading character wear a collar that translates the wearers thoughts into peoples heads.
- Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest has some sort of translators. They appear to work for the Thermians (the friendly aliens) in a similar way to Klingons, with exclamations in their alien language often remaining untranslated. Oddly, the translators are devices used by the Thermians to make themselves understood, yet the antagonist aliens (an unnamed reptilian species) also appear to speak English despite never having even heard of humans before. Being a comedy, it probably shouldn't be expected to make too much sense.
- The translators are clearly integrated with the Thermian ships(on which all of the main characters' dealing with Sarris and his species take place). They're the ones translating for them, just as they do with the newly-discovered species in the mining colony during the "Gorignak" sequence.
- Appropriately for a sci-fi homage/parody, Simon Pegg thinks this is how Paul is speaking English in Paul. He's wrong:
Paul: Actually, I'm speaking English, you fucking idiot.
- The live action Transformers film gives the first attempt in the series why the robots are capable of speaking English just fine, their minds access the internet and are able to assimilate personality quirks appropriate to them, such as Jazz talking and acting like a hip black guy (itself based on the G1 character, voiced by renowned black musician Scatman Crothers), and 'Bee implicitly being a Back to the Future fan. Both Megatron and Frenzy speak in both English and mumble in what seems to be a Cybertronian language.
- The Inhabited Island features this; when Maxim lands on planet Saraksh and meets a native, he puts a little "snake" in his ear, that allows him to understand and speak the Sarakshian language.
- In the original Strugatskies novel, Maxim actually studied Sarakshian language for months until he was able to speak and understand a bit. The film, reasonably, could not be made fully in fictional language with subtittles, especially since the book provides very few examples of Sarakshian.
- Oddly enough, many Maxim's awkward lines from when he knew Sarakshian bad are still there, despite now we presume he knows the language already.
- Men In Black mentions a translator, along with the fact human thought is considered a disease by some aliens.
- In Mars Attacks!, a scientist devises a computer-powered machine to aide communication with the Martians. How well it functions is a point of ambiguity throughout the film - it seems to translate the Martian Emperor's cryptic, metaphor-filled First Contact message fairly well, but the Martians themselves seem oddly alarmed by harsh-sounding translated parts of the humans' welcome message. The fact that the Martians may also be cruel liars is also a factor, as they shout continue shouting comments translated as "We come in peace!" while atomising people. The device itself is small enough to be carried around by hand, but takes a second to broadcast whatever the user says in the translated language.
- Ponter in Hominids, a Neaderthal from an Alternate Universe where Neanderthals and not Homo Sapiens survived, uses his implant to communicate with people from a universe like our where English is spoken and homo sapiens survived. This is especially important as Neanderthals cannot produce the long-e sound, making a lot of Homo Sapiens words unpronounceable naturally by them.
- In the Alcatraz Series, a pair of magical glasses that grant this power is considered one of the most dangerous objects in the world, on the basis that knowledge is power.
- More specifically, these glasses give the ability to read the Forgotten Language. The Incarna, who wrote in this language, had access to magic and technology several orders of magnitude beyond that of the heroes or villians, but Alcatraz Smedry The First "broke" their language, rendering it utterly incomprehensible to anything short of the Translator's Lenses.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy uses the "Babel Fish", though in this case the ridiculous nature of the translation device (inserted in the ear) probably means its use is satirical — like most things in H2G2. The fish itself is named after the biblical Tower Of Babel myth. The babel fish, as it is known, subsists entirely on sound waves. A side effect is that these sound waves are converted into brain waves, which are excreted by the fish, into your brain. It also proves the non-existence of God, much to God's consternation. (According to Oolon Colluphid, anyway. Some people think it's all a load of dingo's kidneys.)
- In The Dresden Files, a demon trying to tempt Harry into losing his soul provides translation as one of several favors it does for Harry. He knows he shouldn't keep relying on it, but...
- In the later Discworld novels, as we see in "Snuff", when Commander Vimes is in total darkness, a powerful demon called the Summoning Dark by dwarves, allows him to hear and speak perfectly to any creature within the darkness, as well as having perfect night vision.
- The Pendragon Adventure begins with Bilingual Dialogue - Uncle Press and a Denduron native communicate while understanding each other perfectly. Once Bobby's Traveler nature kicks in, he gains the ability to read and understand the languages of all the other Territories. Presumably, it applies to acolytes too, since Mark and Courtney get messages from Spader, Aja and others that are somehow in English. Possibly they are translated by the rings used to send the messages between territories, given that when acolytes use them they are addressed to a specific person, not a territory in general. For some reason though, some languages seem like they must be the same as English. For example, in "The Pilgrims of Rayne," some people think a sign says "Rubity" when really it was worn down and originally said Rubic City. Since proper nouns presumably have no translation, and Rubic City is a combination of a proper noun and a common, translatable noun, this would only make sense in English.
- In Animorphs, all Andalites in the military have translator chips implanted in their brains that can translate any language after a brief exposure to it. In addition, their "thought speak" can be understand by any sentient being, because it communicates concepts in addition to specific words.
- The ridiculously convenient nature of thought-speak is eventually justified by a backstory novel where we learn the Ellimist took his extremely high-tech "communications system" with him when he took the form of a prehistoric Andalite; presumably the genes or literal Translator Microbes or whatever he was using got passed on to his descendants.
- In Timeline, the time travelers had earpieces that translated for them. The problem was that only one of them actually knew how to talk in period and he was pretty shaky at it (he was a history buff/archeologist) so for the most part they could understand (reasonably, the translators weren't perfect) but not speak without sounding crazy.
- In the Prince Roger series, the majority of the translation is provided by toots (computers implanted in the user's brain), but the toot still needs to have something with one or two degrees of relation to the language in use before it can start trying to translate. Things aren't smooth - they find out in March To the Stars that the original language sample they've been working from all along has been strategically edited to make all mentions of the locals' new religious habits incredibly euphemistic. Since the locals are now ritualistic cannibals and they're asking for Prince Roger's girlfriend as a sacrifice, Prince Roger is, understandably, Not Pleased to find this out. It doesn't end well for the locals. Additionally, since the native Mardukans lack toots entirely, they have to learn all languages and dialects the hard way.
- The wizards in the Young Wizards series can use the Speech to make themselves understood by all beings (non-wizard listeners usually perceive it as being in their native tongue) and can understand every language. It's so effective that wizards can all speak to animals. At one point they speak to the air molecules and make it remember when it was solid like it was a billion years ago, so they can walk on it. And there's a rather hilarious Running Gag involving Kit's DVD player and remote control.
- In Gregory Frost's novel Shadowbridge, the world is filled with incredibly long bridges, divided into spans. Each span has its own language, but visitors will magically find themselves fluent in it a few minutes after entering.
- The Yuuzhan Vong from the Star Wars Expanded Universe had a Translator Worm as part of their biotechnology. The tyzowyrms, small worms who could be inserted in the ear to understand foreign languages. Somehow, it also allows them to speak unaccented Basic.
- Subverted in the Sector General series by James White. Translator packs are Walkman-sized devices that must be body-worn (typically on a lanyard around whatever anatomical landmark corresponds to the neck), only work for known languages, and can't translate vocal inflections, nonverbal communication, context cues or (amusingly) foul language. They're dumb terminals running the hospital mainframe's translation program, which isn't a whole lot better than a modern Web translator - and when the mainframe crashes, as in the Etlan "police action" (read: minor war) of Star Surgeon, chaos results.
- John DeChancie's Castle Perilous is wrapped in a translator spell to serve its numerous interdimensional "guests".
- The Shakugan no Shana novels mention an Unrestricted Spell that performs this task; presumably, everyone is just using that all the time.
- In the My Teacher Is an Alien book series, the aliens have a universal translator that is implanted into the brain. Every species speaks its native language, and an individual hears the alien language with their ears, but the translator makes them aware of what it means. This implant is also capable of translating non-verbal communication as well, as some of the species don't have vocal cords. This trope is also applied directly, in that the aliens who are sent to Earth as teachers have a second implant that causes them to speak English.
- Crowned Kreg series by Olga Larionova are Darker and Edgier Space Opera, so protagonists learned language of star-traveling Human Aliens via memory-writing device and used it normally in first book, but later (when frantic planet-hopping started) team laid their hands on magical translators. Those worked with any sentient creature using any form of spoken language, but frequently translated speech as strange or broken dialect and sometimes (on more unusual subject) as incomprehensibly weird puzzle, forcing user to ask partner in conversation to explain the same in other words and then try to put it all together.
- Make Way For Dragons. The hero is one of the few people on Earth who can do magic (that's why he met the dragons). Despite his ever-increasing talents, when he finds he can talk to dogs (a dog), his other non-human friends just hear barking. Nobody converts to vegetarinism on the spot.
- It would be pretty strange to convert to vegetarianism on a dog's say-so.
- Many Star Trek novels had the communication pins have translator devices.
- In The Fantastic Flying Journey, Great-Uncle Perceval's grey powder provides the users with the ability to communicate fluently with animals.
- Done in Tad Williams' Otherland novels, although justified in that computer technology has evolved to the point where simultaneous voice translation is a standard feature of the 'Net. There are cases where this fails due to linguistic nuances or a character speaking in a language that the translation software doesn't recognize.
- Marion Zimmer Bradley disliked this trope and tried not to use it; when she resorted to it in Hunters of the Red Moon, the translator sometimes wouldn't convey cultural nuances or figures of speech.
- Neal Asher's The Polity novels include two different implants that serve this function: Augs (the standard brain implants wore by everyone) provided instantaneous translation of recognized languages, while the more advanced Gridlinks actually downloaded the language directly into the user's head, essentially making them native speakers of it.
- In the 3rd book of Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, the main character has the ability to make inanimate objects speak. He uses this ability to make friends with a 8-foot tall giant spider, by telling a piece of spider's web to translate the spider's chittering for him. A spider web speaking spider-language makes perfect sense.
- In the Dragonfall 5 sci-fi juveniles by Brian Earnshaw, there were twin alien animals that carried out this function. Played for laughs when they have a scientist traveling on the ship; he gets rather annoyed when they kept translating his Spock Speak, e.g. "Negative!" as "He means no."
- The Brain Pals in Old Man's War translate alien languages for their users, but only if the language is known to the Colonial Defense Force.
- In the Night Watch books, while in the Twilight, all languages are automatically translated into the listener's primary language. This allows Anton to have a friendly conversation with an American soldier on leave while in Prague.
- Happens in one of the earliest Space Operas, Lens, which provides near-perfect translation. Near-perfect because it still has to sometimes make up words for concepts that have no human equivalent.
- The Bible. Sometime after Jesus ascends to Heaven, the Disciples are blessed so that when they speak, everyone hears it in their own language, allowing them to spread Jesus' teachings around the world.
- Only actively shown in the Acts of the Apostles example mentioned above. In fact, at one point as a prisoner, Paul makes a point of speaking to a crowd in a language his guards don't understand.
- Paul wasn't there at the time, or even a believer.
- Subverted in Guardian of Honor by Robin D. Owens. Yes, the Denver attorney transported to a mystical world does get an animal companion who can translate and help her learn the local tongue — but the attorney is horrible with languages, and when she becomes "fluent" in it, she still has such a thick accent that she sounds like she's drunk.
- A magic example of Translator Microbes from Time Cat. A cat and boy, Jason and Gareth, travel through time while Gareth's magic allows Jason to understand and speak the common language of whatever place and time period he's in.
- This is one of the talents of the fairies in Artemis Fowl. It's partly to do with magic, and partly because fairies were the first race to develop language and every other language (including animal languages, such as dog and dolphin) is an adaptation of Gnomish.
- In Stardoc, Dr. Cherijo Grey Veil uses a translator earpiece to understand the various aliens who come to the hospital she works at on Kevarzangia 2. It uses a wireless connection to a municipal computer database which translates incoming alien tongues. The earpiece then retransmits them as the wearer's native tongue. When Cherijo joins the Jorenians later on, we're treated to the Jorenian equivalent, the vocollar, whose only difference is that it's worn about the neck.
- Tiffany Aching after event in A Hat Full of Sky. The occupation of her mind by the creature that collected minds has left her with shadows of those memories, including a deceased, didactic wizard named Sensibility Bustle, who translates any foreign word inside her head upon hearing or seeing it.
- In "Superman, Last Son of Krypton," Lex Luthor is being held by a group of aliens and they call him an "Earthling." He comments that he prefers the term "Terran" and the aliens explain that their translator returns the best word to the being hearing the translation, based on his/hers/its own perceptions. Thereafter, he hears the word "Terran."
- In Vitaliy Gubarev's children's story Journey to the Morning Star, an old man (a self-proclaimed wizard), his granddaughter, and three neighboring boys travel using the wizard's "thoughtplane" (a craft allowing travel "at the speed of thought" anywhere in the universe) to a planet in the Coma Berenices constellation, where they meet Human Aliens from two of the three planets in the system (the third one still has dinosaurs). They are able to speak to the Etherians and the Sinots through a box that the wizard brings with him and wears on his chest. It should be noted that it's very clear that there is a slight lag between the original speech and the translation from the box, as well as the fact that the translated voice is coming from a different direction. It's not clear how the Etherians and the Sinots communicate, although they may have just learned each other's languages.
- In an episode of Andromeda where Harper has a massive database downloaded into his brain he starts speaking in various languages and suggests that someone make some kind of nanite that lets you speak any language.
- Some of those may be incomprehensible to the viewers but are perfectly understood by at least some of the cast members. Dylan, being born on Tarn Vedra, would probably be fluent in Vedran. Rev Bem was also able to translate Harper's mis-quote "A fast swimmer keeps no pets" (Harper meant to say "A wise man knows his limitations") from Vedran.
- In one episode of The Dead Zone, Johnny briefly dies. He is amazed that he and the Native American ghost that he had been hanging around with can finally understand each other. The ghost explains that everyone sounds the same in the land of the dead.
- Doctor Who states that the TARDIS is psychic and provides translations directly into its passengers' minds.
- Also assigns accents, on a consistent basis. For some reason, "French with a Dutch accent" is translated into "English with a Scottish accent" and vice versa.
- This bit of Lampshade Hanging was actually woven into the story in "The Christmas Invasion", where the TARDIS universal translator suffered a Phlebotinum Breakdown due to the Doctor being unconscious. The protagonists had to resort to a "mundane" translator to understand the Sycorax, and the moment they suddenly started speaking English, Rose realized that the Doctor had recovered.
- Subverted in "The Impossible Planet", where the language is so incredibly old that it's untranslatable.
- A plot point in "The Masque of Mandragora" when companion Sarah Jane is revealed to be brainwashed when she questions why she understands medieval Italian.
- This is explored in "The Fires of Pompeii". When the Doctor tells Donna about the Translator Microbes' effect, she wonders what happens when they speak what they think is Latin. She goes up to a merchant, and says "veni vidi vici" to him. He says, emphasizing every word, "Me no a-speak Celtic! No can do, missy!"
- A Call Back in the same episode, "Caveat emptor!" "Ah, you're Celtic!" This raises some questions as to what language the Doctor actually speaks.
- Donna doesn't quite learn her lesson, as "The Unicorn and the Wasp" has her making some terrible attempts at upperclass 1920's lingo.
- The TARDIS also translates anything in a classical language (for example, the Classical Ood) into Latin.
- Some early episodes have the Doctor unable to communicate even in common Earth languages (even French). It's not made clear whether this is due to the TARDIS itself or to the Doctor learning more languages (both options have been used in-show).
- Interestingly, the Doctor also seems to speak to horses, cats, and babies, but the TARDIS doesn't allow his companions to.
- The ultimate test of the TARDIS telepathic circuits comes in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio "Survival of the Fittest", which features alien insects that communicate through scent. The TARDIS translates, but the Doctor's German-speaking companion points out that if it worked perfectly, they wouldn't get the residual scents as well. And the Doctor wouldn't have "a stuffy Prussian accent."
- Given that the TARDIS is not only alive but sapient, inconsistencies can be chalked up to her own personal eccentricities and whims.
- The viewer occasionally isn't given the benefit of the TARDIS translation, either for Rule of Funny (the Doctor speaking the Judoon language: "Flo! Bo! Jo! So!") or Rule of Drama (Daleks in Germany screaming "EXTERMINIEREN! EXTERMINIEREN!").
- Cold War: Clara assures the Russians in the nuclear submarine that she can't be a spy because she can't speak Russian. Of course, as far as they're concerned, she says this in perfect Russian. The Doctor probably shouldn't have skipped that part of her standard companion explanation.
- Farscape is the Trope Namer, using Translator Microbes which are capable of translating seemingly everything except cusswords and units of measurement.
- In several episodes, this is used as a plot point, as D'Argo at one point starts a program in his ship that speaks in an archaic form of his own language. He can't understand it, and has to have the computer research the language and inject him with new microbes just so he can make out a few words. This also raises a big question on why anyone can understand Crichton, the first English speaker the wider galaxy has ever encountered, if the language has to be programmed in.
- Another plot relevant case was when the crew ended up on Earth. All the aliens could understand the humans, but not vice versa. John had to serve as one-way interpreter.
- There are three known languages besides ancient Luxan that can't be translated by the microbes: Pilot, Diagnosan, and at least one dialect of Scarran.
- Pilot can be translated, but it has to be downshifted to their equivalent of Dick and Jane on Valium for the audience to keep up.
- The inverse happens as well: Sikozu's race is incompatible with translator microbes, but fortunately, is able to learn languages extremely easily. Her first scene with Crichton involves him teaching her English (presumably, she's already learned most of the other species' languages). This comes in handy later when Moya arrives at Earth without Crichton, and Sikozu is able to establish communication with humans (who don't have translator microbes).
- It may be just her and not her entire race, others of her kind never notice he isn't speaking a language they know.
- The rationalization for a universe full of aliens speaking Australian English is forgotten when convenient, such as when Crichton wants to impersonate a Peacekeeper by putting on an Evil Brit accent.
- And then there's Klingon which John knows and like Star Trek is not translated.
- The translator microbes presumably can tell when someone's speaking a language with the intent of not being understood... in addition to the Klingon example, one episode has the crew distract a hijacker by all spouting nonsense in their native languages, none of which is translated by the microbes.
- This is best illustrated by Crichton himself in Season 4, who, for some reason, has decided to start using liberal doses of Spanish, particularly when the wormhole obsession has full hold over him. The Spanish is untranslated, further confusing everyone around him. Modern neuroscience does indicate that we use different parts of our brains for understanding and speaking primary languages (ones we have from infancy) and secondary languages (ones we learn later in life), so it may be that the Translator Microbes only act on the primary language region, leaving second and misc. languages untranslated.
- Made irrelevant in some episodes, particularly one in the first season, when John ends up on a very Earth-like planet, which is undeveloped, and has never had contact with any alien race. Somehow, John is able to communicate freely, despite the natives having no translator microbes. In the end this is explained as them being descendants of colonists, who inherited them along with other useful microbes.
- The same episode establishes that the translation doesn't work on written material (only Rygel, who had years of training in the language, could read a plot-important book), which was later retconned out.
- Stargate SG-1 uses Daniel Jackson, an expert linguist. The movie upon which the series is based hinges entirely on Jackson's linguistic skills, both to interpret the "operating manual" of the Stargate and to communicate with the people on the other side. In the first season, his skills are used on and off to talk to natives, but this is quickly forgotten (since it would make for clumsy storytelling if everyone else had to use Jackson to translate). As the series progresses, his expertise is used primarily to access Imported Alien Phlebotinum, as the inhabitants of at least three galaxies appear to have mastered the language of the "Tau'ri" independently (see Aliens Speaking English).
- There are four languages in the known universe once you leave Earth: Wraith, Goa'uld, English and Ancient.
- The Unas and Asgard also use their own languages (at least sometimes, at first).
- The Wraith are telepathic, so at least they've got that excuse for knowing English. Why everyone else in the galaxy knows English is...questionable.
- The Goa'uld have been taking earthling slaves for centuries, so presumably one of the hosts for the System Lords knows english and they figured it was the most pervasive language on the planet, the ancients lived on earth for a long time (not necessarily with English-speaking people, but then they ascended and gained much of the knowledge of the universe and they did invent a translator.
- The Goa'uld had been taking earthlings as slaves for centuries, but their latest visit to Earth was 700 years before present day at the latest, so their language shouldn't have been anything recognizable as modern English. Same for any of the transplanted humans encountered off-world.
- One explanation (not shown on-screen, but offered by the show creators in one of the "behind the scenes" documentaries) is that the Stargates actually insert some sort of nanite into travelers that allows universal translation. You'd think that would show up on medical scans, though.
- The original released information for Stargate Atlantis months before the show premiered mentioned that translator devices were among the technology the team would find in Atlantis. This was never seen in the aired pilot, however.
- Star Trek uses a Universal Translator. Amazingly, it works even if the Federation has never seen nor encountered the aliens or their language before (apparently, by analyzing its grammar and vocabulary).
- It was subverted in one Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, where a new species comes to the station and their language is so different, that the universal translator has to spend about half of the episode to figure it out — but then again, it manages to figure it out despite the fact that they repeat the same sentence a hundred times.
- Another Deep Space Nine episode had the Ferengi characters crash-land in Earth's past and due to an unfortunately timed malfunction unable to speak or understand English for a brief period. Their mouths still made English words. Incidentally, their translators were installed in their ears.
- Likewise, Star Trek: Enterprise had several instances where their more primitive universal translators needed some time and calibration (sometimes by a professional linguist) to figure out a new language.
- Also subverted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok", where despite translating the individual words, the resulting speech was still incomprehensible. The language was too steeped in cultural metaphors.
- Yes, a planet of Tropers.
- Better than colorful metaphors...
- Similarly, the season 1 Deep Space Nine episode "Babel" has the station affected by a disease that causes aphasia. There's nothing the translators can do when your brain tells you the word for "chair" is "buggy".
- These examples suggest that, even if not everyone in the Trek Verse speaks English, most speak something similar to Earth languages.
- Then again, speaking English words sometimes don't make sense without context. "Shaka, when the walls fell."
- An episode of Star Trek: Voyager hung a lampshade on the convention, by having a cryogenically frozen guy who could only speak Japanese marvel at how the Americans he was frozen with are somehow speaking Japanese, while the Americans equally marvel that he's speaking English. This turns into a brief debate about who's speaking what language, until Janeway interrupts to explain how the universal translator works.
- Another episode of Star Trek: Voyager featured an alien whose language was so out-there (bordering on Black Speech) that the universal translator couldn't handle it, forcing Harry Kim to work on the problem for the better part of the episode.
- And it appeared before that in the Next Generation episode "The Ensigns of Command", with the Sheliak, a race of vaguely octopus-like non-humanoids whose minds are so alien that the the universal translator couldn't find enough reference points to work with. The Sheliak had already learned English themselves in order to negotiate a border treaty with the Federation, but considered human language so imprecise that the treaty they insisted on stretches over several thousand pages.
- Oddly, it seems that the universal translator switches itself on and off when someone is speaking Klingon, probably to give the writers a chance to show off a real live alien language.
- The original series establishes that the translators work directly from thought patterns. It also explicitly establishes that it can detect what gender an organism is, even if that organism is a gender-less cloud of energy. Both of these concepts were completely ignored after the episode in which they were introduced.
- In the original series, it has long been implied that Chekov already spoke English in addition to his native Russian, which would him an aversion, but it's never confirmed one way or the other. It would explain why he speaks with an accent when translated languages usually don't.
- An episode of the Australian 1980's science show Towards 2000 about translator software had a skit in which various international businessmen (all played by the host) tried to negotiate a deal but got stymied by the too-literal translation of what they were saying. Eventually the computer blows up when called upon to translate the most incomprehensible language in the world.
- The old Spacemaster time travel supplement weaves some deft pseudo-linguistic gobbledegook around this trope by introducing a language called "Intrinsic" that can be understood by any human being and that can be easily learned.
- In Traveller one of the programs one can use with a wafer jack is a translator.
- The Tau in Warhammer 40,000 have cybernetic implants in their brains that allow them to communicate with other races, including humans. So far they're the only race known to use a universal translator, at least on a large scale, seeing as how most factions in the setting aren't particularly interested in communicating with aliens.
- One of the odder examples is Tomba!. The titular character has to bite elves to understand their language, and gains a bit better grasp of it with each one he does. It takes 4 to get a full grasp of the language.
- In The Longest Journey, April listens to somebody speaking Alltongue for a few minutes, and her brain appears to learn to "translate" the language, so she hears the speaker as if they were talking in plain English. This is a characteristic of Alltongue itself. Anyone who listens to it for a while will be able to understand it. Indeed, that's why it's called Alltongue.
- Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic makes a passing reference to "autotranslators", but no further explanation is given. Possibly it has to do with the player's Personal Electronic Thing.
- And in Adams' Infocom version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you have to figure out how to get a Babel Fish into your ear before you can understand the Vogon announcement coming over the PA system, which is otherwise just shown as gibberish.
- All the aliens in Super Robot Wars Original Generation use translation devices, though they are pointedly not perfect. When one guy tells the alien his name (which means 'Mysterious Gourment' in German) one of the alien commanders incredulously asks if his translator is broken. Also, in a fourth-wall breaking moment, another guy begins his normal battlespeech, which segues into an episode splash-screen. After this, the same alien commander just has to ask "... 'Chapter 30'? What the hell?"
- Arguably, that makes them working too perfectly. "Mysterious Gourmet" really is the English translation for that character's "name". The fact that it was able to translate a German phrase when they're most likely speaking Japanese or English shows that whoever made that really did their homework.
- Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters is semi-famous for its amusing subversion of this trope, which also makes the race rather scary upon further viewing: the ship's computer is unable to fully translate the language of the Orz, leaving the player to puzzle out bizarre, vaguely Engrish-sounding sentences such as
"Hello to our *house*. Do you feel *better* yet?
If you are *campers* you will enjoy *the change*, but maybe not yet.
It is best if many happy Orz are coming to your *house*."
- Not only that, Earthlings managed to make an entire race our enemies by thinking that translators didn't work. On the first meeting. In case you are wondering, said race is VUX. The Earthling captain told his assistant that VUX must stand for "Very Ugly Xenomorph." Which, unfortunately, was clearly broadcasted and translated to the VUX ship. Way to go, humans.
- The translators apparently get tripped up by idiomatic speech to some extent. Fwiffo has some difficulty translating "the backbone of the Earthguard" because of this, instead first saying "the most rigid crest".
- In Excelsior Phase One Lysandia, you need to obtain the Miracle Ear to speak to the inhabitants of the Monster Town Grethal.
- In Descent: Freespace, an alien race speaks in incomprehensible grunts overlapped by a speech synthetizer's monotone that is roughly half a second behind. In a game heavy with verisimilitude this turns out to work better than almost any kind of alien-spoken English would. Particularly since the obligatory Returning Destroyers (the Shivans) are the one inscrutable mystery race in scifi games to stay inscrutable, and never speak at all.
- The game's files on the Vasudan people teases the player by saying that these "incomprehensible grunts" are in fact a language more complex and sophisticated than any on Earth, to the point that even if humans could decipher individual words, it would probably still be incomprehensible.
- In Freespace 2, the NTF rebellion turned out to be a cover for the revival of a top-secret project to create a Shivan communications translator. Although the GTVA managed to obtain the technology just before the ship containing the prototype was destroyed, we never get to know what happened to the technology or the rogue Admiral who went on-board the Shivan transport. With the game's publisher bankrupt, and the space-sim genre practically dead, we never will know.
- Parodied in the Freespace 2 joke campaign Deus Ex Machina. As an NTF pilot, you are able to witness the top-secret ETAK translator device in action for the first time. Unfortunately, the translator outputs everything in L337-sp34k. It turns out the Shivans thought Terrans and Vasudans communicated via "h07 Pl4s|\/|4" (hot plasma). Apparently when the Shivans first appeared, they witnessed the Terran-Vasudan war, and they thought Terrans and Vasudans firing hot balls of plasma at each other was the two species communicating - which explains (sort of) why the Shivans appeared to be hostile even if they "C4|\/|3 1|\| p34C3" (came in peace) all along. Neither the device's operator nor Alpha 1 are able to decipher the translated l337 text, and if the player failed to plot an escape path, the Shivans will resort to using the "known way of communication".
- In Little Big Adventure II, you eventually pick up a translator device that allows you to understand the aliens.
- Mass Effect offers up two explanations. The first is that there is speak a galactic trade language, in order to make politics and commerce easier. It sounds like English, but that's purely Translation Convention, as at the end a Prothean hologram is played, only the player (who got exposed to two Prothean beacons as well as the Prothean Cipher to make the beacons understandable) can understand it. We hear as perfect English, albeit with static, but your party acts like it's incomprehensible gibberish, aside from Liara (who helped the player understand Prothean in the first place and has been studying them for decades) and she only understands brief fragments of the conversation.
- The second explanation plays this trope straight. Most will speak the galactic trade language, but there are those who can't or simply choose not to. For them, there is this trope, detailed in the downloadable content and in the second book. Translation synthesizers translate most foreign languages into whatever language the user programs it to. It uses the extranet to pull in any new dialects, and can be in almost any form, from jewelery to PDAs. In the book it is shown to malfunction at times, as it was never built to translate multiple languages all at the same time, and if a an alien is injured and/or insane, the translator has trouble translating the garbled speech. The languages have to be decoded by linguists before the machines will work, it is NOT a universal translator like from Star Trek.
- If female Commander Shepard romances Thane Krios, he will use a word that Shepard's translator is unable to understand, saying her "translator just glitched."
- Furthermore, certain alien slurs like Tali's 'bosh'tet' go untranslated, probably because there's no English equivalent or, alternately, that a direct English translation would not carry the same implications as to a quarian. Some specific idiomatic phrases don't translate well either: "There's still a, how do you humans say it, fly in the lotion?" Also, when Garrus attempts to woo female Shepard, he assumes he can translate turian pick-up lines into English for the same effect, and ends up telling her that her "waist is very supportive".
- In Mass Effect 3 Tali finally explains the meaning of the Quarian phrase, "Keelah Se'lai", which so far has gone unexplained. Tali explains that it really doesn't have an exact translation in English, but roughly speaking, it means "By the homeworld I wish to see someday".
- In Tales of Eternia (aka Tales of Destiny 2 in the US), Meredy and the Celestians speak the Melnics language, which can be understood by the Inferians only by wearing "Orz Earrings"; these use some sort of psychic Technobabble to send the actual desired words into the recipient's brain, and require the users to be on similar "psychic wavelengths". Interestingly, Meredy (or the psychic equivalent of her voice) speaks in pidgin English for the entire game; whereas when the Inferians actually reach Celestia, all the other Celestians speak with no accent at all, and the requirement of being on the same "wavelength" is, ironically, waived. None of this is ever explained.
- In Star Ocean, advanced species have universal Translator devices (that when necessary can double as EXPLOSIVES). They understand the people who aren't yet inducted to the Pangalactic Federation/Terran Alliance because they've documented and recorded them behind the scenes (read: from orbit). As such, they can speak to anyone (there are no unknown groups in the galaxy) except the Aldians, who are already space-capable and wholesomely unfriendly until their entire species is blown up in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time.
- Conquest Frontier Wars mentions a translator to begin with but ignores it later. The Calareons are smart enough to not need one but the Mantis occasionally speak in the wrong order (partially justified due the fact English is in the wrong order compared to several other languages).
- While riding the Conveyor Belt-O-Doom on his way to being turned into one of the bad guys, the player character of Quake IV gets injected in the head, and a monitor overhead which had been displaying incomprehensible gibberish turns into English. Similarly, after that the overhead announcements and threats of the Strogg become garbled English.
- In Halo: Combat Evolved, the Grunts' speech is translated, but the Elites are mostly unintelligible. In the second game, the Elites are finally heard in English due to advanced UNSC translators. The Covenant, however, are also heard speaking English to each other when there are no humans around, which is obviously Translation Convention.
- Within the Halo Wars bonus material timeline, its revealed that the Covenant was ordered by the Prophets to form "Language Groups" who would learn human language and teach it to everyone, presumably to help with military intelligence.
- In Space Quest I, ridiculously awful janitor Roger Wilco can't naturally understand anyone. However, early in the game he gets an item called the Strange Gizmo. Turning it on (which requires a bit of inventive thinking) allows him to understand any alien speech. In Space Quest 2, he still carries the same device, only this time, it's called the Dialect Translator and cannot be turned off. It's only useful once in that game, while Space Quest 1 requires it to be on for the entire game.
- In the EGA original version of SQ 1, it was always called the Dialect Translator. TURN DIAL
- In Iji, the protagonist's nanofield allows understanding and speaking in the language of both alien species. It's also parodied with an item that messes up the conversation and speech.
- In The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Link has to eat a Jabber Nut in order to understand the language of the Minish People.
- In Onimusha 3, Ako, the tengu, has the power to make everyone in range of her understand each others' languages. This is why Jacques, Michelle, and Henri, who all speak French, can understand Samanosuke, who is from ancient Japan. When she disappears to travel through time, they become unable to understand each other again.
- Interspecies diplomacy in Galactic Civilizations is pretty pointless ("greeble sig doob?") until you research or trade for Universal Translators. You can even build an improved version, Diplomatic Translators, that translates for you and suggests the best way to phrase your demands or responses, granting you a bonus to your Diplomacy rating.
- Shows up in Hey You, Pikachu! as a gameplay mechanic - the player's handed a device called a PokeHelper that translates human language into something a wild Pikachu understands.
- In SD Snatcher, a "Lingu-Disk" to translate Spanish lets Gillian speak with Mr. Cielo.
- In Assassin's Creed I, a majority of the dialogue takes place in genetic memories being relived by the protagonist, Desmond, but the Animus renders all of the Arabic, Italian, etc. into understandable English for him (and the player).
- Indeed, your kidnappers say that they could revert everything back to period appropriate dialects, but that it wouldn't do you much good unless Desmond had "read Chaucer."
Desmond: Chauncy who?
- Video Game/Unreal1 has the 'Universal Translator' a small computer like device that translates alien script, but not alien speech.
- Played with in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. The Demon Summoning Program installed on the protagonist's Powered Armor will translate what demons are saying, but only after you've defeated them at least once. Until then, you can't even see them; they look like balls of static. All throughout the game, demons will regularly ask how you can understand them.
- While the first two games in The Journeyman Project series don't have you interact with people, the third game has you try out a "chameleon suit", a time-traveling suit that allows you to scan a person and project him or her using holo-projectors. Speech is likewise translated in real-time and using the appropriate voices. After all, how else is your character supposed to talk to Atlanteans (who probably speak something similar to Ancient Greek), Ancient Egyptians, Mayans, Tibetans, and Mongolians?
- The magical drug Lucidrol in Magical Security Taskforce, used primarily by transfer student Yuki. It has a few interesting side effects: the user cannot discern which language is being spoken to her, including his/her native tongue. It also translates crazed ranting and poor handwriting. Another character takes a dose to translate a complicated legal contract.
- According to Word of God, all the Matoran Universe characters in BIONICLE were hit with a signal from Mata Nui, which upgraded them with software that allowed them to communicate with the Glatorian and Agori.
- The Correlians are the first to have this technology in Registry of Time.
- Elcenia: Elcenian dragons can do this as a native trait, and there are a number of wizard spells that do the same thing for speech and written language. A sufficiently odd language—for instance, wolfrider, which includes a telepathic part—is not fully translated by standard spells, and poetry and songs translated do not rhyme.
- Discussed in Cracked, which calls Translator Microbes The 3rd Stupidest Way Movies Deal with Foreign Languages.
- In Season 7 of the Red Panda Adventures, the titular hero subconsciously projects a hypnotic field that makes everyone nearby understand each other. As he is suffering from amnesia, he has a bad case of Centipede's Dilemma regarding this power.