The universal translator is a well-known staple of some science fiction TV shows such as Star Trek but from a real life and scientific perspective the question then becomes: is it possible to create this technology sometime in the 21st Century? At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh scientists have prototypes of CAT’s (Computer Assisted Translations) that attach electrodes to two people that speak different languages such as English and Spanish. As each person’s mouth moves the words are then deciphered and translated by a computer. A voice synthesizer then speaks the translated words in a chosen language. It is thus already clear that primitive versions of the universal translator device already exist and can be built upon in the future.
A second element in the universal translator field is often the consideration of translating human languages such as English to an alien language and vice versa if we were to encounter them in the future. The process for this would be even more complicated than translating between different languages that exist on Earth and would certainly require some cooperation and perhaps some borrowed technologies from other alien species to achieve this. This area is entirely speculative at the moment and this topic tends to be discussed among science fiction fans and futurists for the most part but is interesting none the less.
In terms of the universal translator’s use in science fiction franchises such as Star Trek, I will never forget when the crew of the ship is forced to manually translate using multiple huge dictionaries that translate from English to Klingon (the language of the primary alien enemy of Star Trek’s original series and the first six original films), the resulting scene is humorous as the crew tries to make it out that they are Klingon when using ship to ship audio communication (they cannot use a universal translator as it would be easily detected that they are using that technology and therefore give away the fact that the ship is carrying humans). After some rough translations the Klingons believe that they are Klingons but laugh at their rough use of the language. This scene would be a good example of why computer assisted technology in translating alien languages would be direly needed in the future in order to avoid having to quickly flip between four or five very thick and heavy books just to make a simple translation from English to an alien language.
A common question that many put forward is: how close are we to creating a universal translator? The answer would probably be sometime in the 21st century, or at the very latest whenever we make contact with aliens and we are forced to develop it (if for whatever reason we believe that using computers to translate between Earth’s languages is not needed). The Star Trek Franchise continues to make use of the universal translator such as in the new series: Star Trek Discovery, and I look forward to watching some of these episodes that hopefully offer more humorous takes on it such as the one mentioned in the original film series above.