11/25/2005 06:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Found in Translation

Part of the endearing goofiness of the first Star Trek series was its premise that infinite tolerance and diversity eventually would prevail, because every being in every nook and corner of the universe -- even if it was a giant reptile or a troubled lava-beast -- spoke like a white dude from California. (The only exceptions were the vaudeville accents of Scotty and Ensign Chekhov.)

Such was the magic of the ``universal translator,'' which never crashed or went off-line, even when pieces of the Enterprise were flying off under phaser barrages and the warp core couldna take enna more, as Scotty might say.

It was a way more unlikely device than the transporter, but of course they were onto something more important than the need to produce one-hour shows with Los Angeles actors. Language is undoubtedly our most sensitive and well-developed marker of who is strange and who is OK to deal with. It's our biggest obstacle to fellow-feeling with other human beings (not just those who don't speak ``our'' language, but those who speak it differently than we do).

``When men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other simply because of difference of language,'' wrote St. Augustine, ``all the similarity of their common human nature is of no avail to unite them in fellowship. So true is this that a man would be more cheerful with his dog for company than with a foreigner.'' it would be an amazing experience to see another human being without language difference's subtle and not so subtle promptings.

Well, here's a href="">progress
report from the journal Science.
Alex Waibel and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon have a prototype device that reads signals from electrodes in your face and throat, converts them into words, and then translates those words into another language. The system works with Mandarin, English and Spanish in an extremely limited range -- just 15 phrases. But hey, it's a start.

Did Captain Kirk and company have electrodes in their faces and throats? That might be what it would take to make a real-time translator work, Waibel said. ``I think some day people will accept having a few electrodes implanted in their cheek,'' he said.

Maybe so. When I imagine a downside, it's not the hardware -- it's the thought that people with Sony electrodes will find they can't translate from people with Microsoft electrodes (conflicting standards, sorry) or that your phrase won't be translated into Finnish (``run, northern folk, for the caribou are stampeding!'') until you have listened to a brief ad from Yahoo.

A universal translator would need to be cheap and easy enough to be universal indeed. If not, then the differences between Chinese and Spanish will be remapped onto the differences between corporate products, or between the rich people with these devices and the peasantry.

But that's for a future decade, if not a future century. Right now, here is a working prototype. That is, to use the technical term, way cool.

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