The dream of a device that can help people instantly understand other languages is not something new. I had my first encounter with this idea as a kid watching Star Trek on TV. If you’re not old enough to have watched it, or you’ve forgotten the plot, the show features the adventures of a space crew that uses their starship (Enterprise) to discover new civilisations and planets.
In their travels, they discover a wide array of life forms, so they use a universal translator for communication. This device helps the locals understand our adventurers and vice versa, and works on most languages. However, it has one major flaw – it is only a translator.
As it is accurately depicted in the TV series, just by understanding the language of a foreign people, it doesn’t mean you fully understand what they are saying. People use more than just words to communicate, and as we discussed in previous articles, not all the words of a language can be translated.
Captain Kirk and his crew suffered from a lack of cultural knowledge (which usually became the plot of the episode) when interacting with other civilisations. So, even though they had a tool that made communication possible, it wasn’t always a smooth experience for either party.
Language is More Than Words
As a professional translator, who is constantly working with people from other cultures, I have a unique chance to see and understand the beauty of communication beyond words. As such, we don’t use only body language to communicate our thoughts, we also use voice inflexions, facial expressions, and context.
Moreover, in written communication, we must adjust the text to its original culture, in order to grasp its full meaning. This is called localisation, and is an activity that good translators know rather well.
Just like Captain Kirk and his crew come to realise at the end of each episode, we translators know that words can have a different meaning depending on the context. Moreover, when you consider the source of a written piece, it’s easier to understand the nuances and improve the level of communication.
And cultural differences show up in most communication forms, they are not just for those cultures that clearly come from different environments like Japan and the U.S (just the first example that came to mind). Some cultures put more value on how things are being said, while others are more literal and get more meaning from what is said.
In addition, we each come from a specific background that can sightly differ from other people’s background, even though we live in the same country.
In conclusion, even though we now have a wide array of ways to communicate our thoughts and opinions, we still don’t have a full grasp on how to do so in a way that doesn’t offend or irritate people with different backgrounds.
So, while the idea of a universal translator is great (and almost a reality nowadays), we still need professionals to adjust the communication at a cultural level.