Monthly Archives: May 2016

On Universal Translators – Or How We Take Translation for Granted

I was watching “Improbable Cause” today because Deep Space Nine is my jam, and while Dr. Bashir is trying to impress upon the irascible Garak the moral of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, my mind drifted to a very strange thing.

How was he telling this story? Even with a universal translator, how does one communicate specifically human concepts like “shepherds” and “wolves”?

Obviously, the moral cannot be translated, as Garak’s reaction to the lesson was “never tell the same lie twice”, instead of the human, “maybe we shouldn’t lie repeatedly.”

*mic drop*

But there is a more pedantic problem with the story. There are words in this simple story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” that have absolutely no context for an alien species. They may not have herded animals the same way we do, shepherds may not even exist in this new era of space travel, or they don’t have carnivorous animals that ate stock animals (if they even raise animals). Who knows.

It makes one wonder at just how clunky universal translators must be in science fiction, and why we think that translating language is as simple as converting kilometers to miles (a problem we have now, to be frank).



I imagine that story probably sounded like this to Garak:

“The boy who looks after ungulate species known for hair that is used to make clothing cried out that there was a large carnivore that typically eats these ungulates and humans approaching.”

If you’re thinking that Star Trek has addressed in this in the episode, “Darmok”, you’re right. But it’s far more widespread than just that culture, which is something I address in my article “We Are Living the Darmok Dream“.

What’s more, there are technical aspects that remain unaddressed with universal translators in science fiction.

For example, wouldn’t anyone using a universal translator be speaking like they are dubbed– their mouths moving at a different rate than the words they are speaking? Think about it. Their lips should be forming the words in their own language, which will certainly not match the language their conversation partner is hearing.

Even more concerning is how are they achieving noise cancellation. If Garak is speaking Cardassi, and Bashir only hears English, how does the translator cancel the actual words Garak is speaking without dampening the English as well?

Honestly, the more I think about the Universal Translators, the more I’m disappointing science fictions fans are okay with the magical hand wave that says “shhhh…. they all speak English and that makes sense”.

Sure, there is scifi that addresses it more believable. The N’kai are only able to communicate in Stargate Universe through rudimentary words that they gleaned from telepathically torturing Rush. In District 9, any communication they have is colored by the fact they aren’t really sure if they understand one another, regardless of cultural context.

But that is almost too easy. I want some hard science fiction that actually engages with the concept of cultural translation and the mechanics of the equipment and coding that would be required for alien species to totally understand one another.

Frankly, it’s a little sad to me the most believable Universal Translator is the Babel Fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a tongue-in-cheek story that is only scifi because it takes place in space. That’s right, a fish that sits in your ear and translates what you hear– and is so miraculous and explainable that it is cited as evidence that God exists- is the most believable form of Universal Translation.

I think perhaps it’s because we as people do not understand what translation really is. Unless you’re bilingual, you just accept that the subtitles on your favorite movies are correct. We don’t realize how much is retranslated just so we can have a cultural touchstone for something we wouldn’t understand.

After all, that is how manga is translated. First, you have a direct translation, which no monolingual English speaker would understand because it would be littered with incomplete sentences, implied subjects, and contextual levels of politeness that only have one translation for the all of them. Then, someone goes through it, and localize it. They take out celebrities you don’t know, and add one that sort of makes sense in the joke. They replace rudeness with curse words, and try to rework puns into a language that doesn’t use the same sounds.

This is why Pokemon, Brock holds up a rice ball, and says “These donuts are great.”

Note that Brock isn’t actually his name, but that’s magic of localization.

Essentially, science fiction is very good at commenting on current structures in our world, or critiquely analyzing where our future may go, but when it comes to culture and and mechanics of it, it fails to looks seriously at language as a serious hurdle for technology to overcome.


Playing Dress Up

I’m very late to the game for talking about Jupiter Ascending, and it took me six more months to figure out exactly what I want to say on it… So please forgive my tardiness.

I had two realizations when I watched it for the first time. One, that I am Abratrash, even though that family is awful, and I think the direct cause is a shirtless Eddie Redmayne. Two, I didn’t like Jupiter and I couldn’t figure out why. The first is something I can dwell on in private, the second… well, let’s just say I had to talk it out with my friends for a long time to try and understand my issues, and then, as it always does, it expanded to encompass more scifi than just Jupiter Ascending.

Largely, it turns out that every time I tried to think about Jupiter and her personality, I could only think of her in terms of her stunning outfits. That’s when it hit me:

When I try to review the plot, and remember all the things she did, it’s a timeline dotted with haute couture.

Even more interesting, every single one of those outfits were not worn by choice.

But before I get into that, I do want to say how amazing the costume design is for this movie. Every stitch is jaw-dropping. Or in the case of this Balem Abrasax outfit, every lack of stitch is too.

What? I told you. I’m Abratrash.

While I think some would argue with me on whether or not Jupiter Jones is a flat character (some have pointed out that not only is she a vehicle audience, but she’s smart to play the roles given to her until she understands the new universe she’s been thrust into), I think it’s only fair to mention that her wardrobe is dictated by others, and chosen to fulfill a symbolic reason. Intentional or not, it says a lot about how women interact with the world through fashion.

For Jupiter, it starts with a paper gown. At the beginning of the movie, her cousin convinces her to sell her eggs in order to make money for her impoverished family. She’s not terribly keen on the idea, especially after she discovers that she’ll only be getting a 1/3 of the take. Meanwhile her cousin- who has to do nothing for it- happily goes out and spends the remainder on himself. Even with this realization, she still goes to the clinic after the cousin clearly manipulates her. Then when she tries to say no to the procedure, the doctors (actually aliens sent to kill her) do not stop. Because of this, I would argue that her paper gown that she wears when her adventure begins was not a choice.

In fact, it’s a pretty good foreshadow for the rest of the movie.

Immediately afterward, her werewolf/angel boyfriend changes her clothes… while she’s asleep. This is a bit of a foreshadow, since next time she falls asleep on screen, she wakes up in completely different outfit… also put on her while she was unconscious. This time, however, it’s by her “daughter”… but not really her daughter, but it’s a space soap opera, so go with it.

It should be said, though, that the movie seems to be aware of this as she comments on it during her next costume change. At that point, she says that she appreciates being awake and consenting. But even if she herself is changing her clothes, the actual outfits themselves are not her choice. I’m certain that she’d prefer not to meet her “son”- but not her son, but it’s a space soap opera so go with it- in black pleather dress that looks so architectural it had to have been massively uncomfortable. It was Titus’ prerogative. This is to say nothing of the wedding dress he makes her wear so he can take away her property rights.


Yeah, you read that right. Her next outfit is a wedding dress she’s forced to wear so her son/husband can take away her property rights. If you’re not thinking about feudalism and its connections to toxic masculinity right now, you might want to consider it.

Even when dressed in her more practical clothing from the police, there is no choice for what she wears. Her closet literally only has one set of clothing,

All in all, every outfit in Jupiter Ascending is a stark reminder of how women we dress women up. Titus needed her to be his wife, so he dressed her that way. Kalique wanted her elegant mother back, so she dressed her like that. The police needed an agent, so she wore their clothes.

There are two conclusions you can draw from this.

1. Jupiter’s wardrobe changes are indicative of her sole purpose: she is a vehicle to get a plot moving in a different world.

2. She is a savvy woman who dresses up as whatever she needs to be to survive, much the same way women in our own world have to.

I’m leaning toward 2, though I’m fairly certain the Wakowskis weren’t actually try to make a statement on the subject of any sort.

What’s interesting is that it’s not just Jupiter. I want you to think back to the not-so-long ago past with Katniss from The Hunger Games. Remember Katniss? How all she wanted to do was wear dad’s jacket and illegally hunt squirrels in the backwoods of former West Virginia?

Well, with Katniss, it starts with her mother forcing her into a nice outfit for the Reaping, and it just snowballs from there. Before she even reaches the Capitol, she coerced into Capitol clothing. When she gets there, her beautician, who ostensibly is supposed to be on her side, focuses on turning her into the Mockingjay from the first chapter they meet (though she doesn’t figure this out until the actual book, Mockingjay). His entire plot line is about dressing her up to play a part she has no interest in playing.

It’s important to remember that Katniss doens’t have any desire to be the Mockingjay, much like Jupiter Jones doesn’t want to be the dead mother of the Abrasax family.

You might be seeing a trend here.

Even our strongest heroines are often forced to play a part in order to win.

In science fiction (and fantasy as well), we like to dress women up to be what we think they should be. It’s a common plot device, and it’s a wonder why we aren’t picking up on the commentary of it, but rather internalizing it as a truth by not questioning it.

Even today, women are asked to dress in a lot of ways, usually to fit some image that someone else has of us. And if you want personal stories on that, please ask. I can talk to you about how I dressed like my boss, only to find out it was unprofessional because I was younger and skinnier. My dress, which I purposefully chose to mimic my superiors, was cited as inappropriate and a reason for my termination from the job even when I went more conservative. Or I could tell you how I was afraid to wear flannel shirts when they were popular in the sixth grade because I wasn’t one of the cool kids. I thought that if I did, I would be made fun of, so I wore dowdy t-shirts and leggings.

I have more stories, and the woman in your life almost certainly do too.

However, this is not to say that outfit changes means a woman is being exploited. In the case of Jupiter Jones, and Katniss, it definitely is. But the opposite is also possible. Remember Margaery’s wedding dress in Game of Thrones? The one decked out in thorns that basically said “I do not like you, do not touch me. I’m marrying you for my own power-grabbing purposes”? She turned fashion she had to wear into armor, as she had been consistently doing through out her appearances in earlier episodes.

Girl, is that why you wearing that dress?
Is that why you’re wearing that dress? Rude!

Essentially, clothing is a way women can take back power. For that, I can think of no better example than Cardcaptor Sakura.

Some of you may not be aware of this amazing manga (though some slightly dubious romance storylines), so I’ll give you a quick summary: Sakura is a young girl who has to chase down the errant cards of a long dead sorcerer that are causing trouble in her hometown. While she does this, she wears truly breath-taking outfits that her friend Tomoyo makes.


Okay, that last bit isn’t terribly important to the plot. All it does is give us things that are visually fun to look at while she’s fighting because, admit it, being a super hero is more fun with costume changes (and half the reason I play FFX-2). It also serves as a secondary way for Tomoyo to be a part of Sakura’s life, even though she can’t do magic. The outfits essentially deepen a strong female friendship, and give the characters more personality. They are about who Sakura is as a person, and not what others want her to be (even if Tomoyo can kind of stray toward that direction). Plus, half the battles she engages in are in the clothing she just happened to be wearing at the time anyway, ranging from school uniforms, and gym sweats to adorable winter coats.

The point I’m trying to drive home here is that fashion doesn’t have to be the chains that bind women.

Sadly, I can’t really comment on Jupiter Jones’ outfit changes being a critique or a manifestation of how we teach young girls that their looks are society’s concerns. I go back and forth like a pendulum on that. What I can say is that it shows up as a plot device in stories, and I think we should be far more aware of it.

Also, if we’re going to have it all, it should be so much more like Margaery from Game of Thrones, or Cardcaptor Sakura.