Take Me To Your Picard

Translation is one of the good old problem areas of sf, highlighted by Douglas Adams's gag about the Babel Fish. In a universe where the southern English can't understand their own language if the speaker is Glaswegian or Geordie, how do we ever communicate with aliens?

The original Star Trek approach was simply that everyone in the Galaxy naturally speaks US English. There's also a Trek babel-fish: the Universal Translator, which reads brainwaves and gives instant English translations while retaining perfect lip-sync. After all, back in the 50s, James White's 'Sector General' space-hospital used a translation computer that didn't need to be taught alien languages. It just calculated them from scratch once it knew any being's 'audio range'.

More traditionally, lazy writers can let the extraterrestrials do all the work. Sometimes visitors are conveniently telepathic: 'The chill thought-forms of the alien flooded into Captain Grogblossom's mind ...'

Sometimes they're media addicts. TENTACLED ALIEN: 'We have long studied your puny Terran broadcasts and analysed every detail of your primitive speech. Now, take me to your leader. Take me to ... Tinky Winky.'

Sometimes they have awesomely advanced technology: 'Swallow this pill which provides understanding of the Galaxy's fifty chief languages. – Oh no! Untranslatable curses! I accidentally gave you the pill which grants unlimited super powers and full ability to defeat our insidious invasion plan!' (Larry Niven's story 'The Fourth Profession' has a plot slightly like this.)

And sometimes, of course, the aliens are just fast learners. 'Lieutenant Bloggs squatted, and with his finger drew nine concentric circles in the alien sand. He pointed to himself and to the circle representing Earth's orbit, third from the sun ...' There is then a very brief gap between paragraphs, and the story continues with: '"You are a most excellent teacher," the greenskin warbled in halting Anglic ...'

Of course it gets exciting when translations go wrong. You say 'Hello, we come in peace' and a Windows 95 glitch makes this emerge in Rigellian as 'Greetings, alien scum! We come to annihilate you painfully and rape your planet.' Amusing complications follow.

Stanislaw Lem's ongoing theme – in Solaris, The Invincible, Fiasco, and others – is that aliens will be really alien, making communication incredibly difficult or impossible. Lem himself is an alien whose sf is full of complicated puns in Polish ... but cunning English translators manage to cope.

This sf theme comes to mind because of a huge book on real-world translation and the weirdness of language, by Douglas Hofstadter of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame. Though written in English, this is confusingly called Le Ton beau de Marot, and bookshops don't know where to shelve it: I found mine under Philosophy. It's hard to imagine a better source of eccentric ideas for sf writers wrestling with alien communication. Hofstadter digresses madly in all directions ... with lots of sf/fantasy relevance.

Some topics, in no special order: (a) Problems of translating Lem's sf wordplay, with alternative examples. (b) Computer translation and its enormous snags ... 'Out of sight, out of mind' becomes 'Invisible idiot.' (c) Rival and amazingly different translations of the world's greatest fantasy poem, Dante's Divine Comedy. (d) Traditional thieves' cant, as borrowed by Gene Wolfe for The Book of the Long Sun. (e) Translations into demented versions of English, like books written without using the letter E, or Poul Anderson's legendary essay 'Uncleftish Beholding', which describes 'Atomic Theory' using only Anglo-Saxon words: '... lightweight unclefts can be made to togethermelt. In the Sun, through a row of strikings and lightrottings, four unclefts of waterstuff in this wise become one of sunstuff.' (f) Translations of games to unusual boards ... when playing chess on a hexagonal grid, how do knights move? (g) Artificial intelligence and Turing tests. (h) Tom Lehrer's songs. (i) Theories of jokes and nonsense. (j) Are there genuinely untranslatable sentences? (k) Communicating with the condensed-matter aliens in Robert Forward's Dragon's Egg ... and so on, at length.

Le Ton beau de Marot isn't science fiction, so wasn't reviewed in SFX – but it's full of sf examples, sf ideas and that special tingly flavour of intelligent sf. Recommended.

One last language difficulty. Earth has particularly bad luck in Robert F. Young's story 'Written in the Stars', whose benevolent Sagittarians leave in a huff on finding the dirtiest pictogram in their whole language glowing in the night sky. It's the constellation Orion. Wash out your sky with soap and water, Earthlings!