Science fiction stories set in an alien-rich future like to show the universe’s different species communicating seamlessly by means of (what in the Star Trek universe is called) a “Universal Translator.”
The technology to instantly translate a known, human language is today a reality (though a rough and buggy one). But the science fiction “universal translator” is able to instantly and perfectly translate even previously unknown alien languages. Disbelief cannot be suspended quite so far: at the very least the translator would struggle and make mistakes along the way as it pieced together a language sound by sound.
My “Universal Translator” is as much a fantasy as Star Trek’s, but it acknowledges some of the difficulties of language and translation, and the fact that language as we know it is evolved from and deeply connected to ancient metaphors that a machine translator would have difficulty distinguishing from the words’ denotative intent.
To build this project, I invented a useful portion of an imagined alien language.
Amy Letter is a writer and artist and sometime Rumpus contributor.
Note: This piece first appeared as part of the SoundArt show at 18 Rabbit Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a show curated by the artist Leah Brown.