I've been drafting a science fiction story that places a lot of emphases on the vastness of culture. One way technique I've been using is language and the hassle of translation. Earth has abut 4,500 languages spoken commonly, and that's not including slang and accents (some parts of Scotland needs to be subtitled on British television, I am told). In this particular setting, that number is multiplied by the number of species and increased further by the vast distances between settlements and colonies.

For face-to-face communication to work between radically different species, electronic translators have become extremely common. The most common type is an AI equipped with directional microphones, a vast compendium of languages, and an equivalent of an earpiece. This AI focuses on a speaker, translates in near-real time, then feeds the translation into the earpiece (or projects subtitles onto a visor, case depending). Its not a perfect system, but its well-programmed enough to handle groups of people speaking simultaneously, provident that it what its translating to what.

Example from the text: It took one of its hands off the gun to pull a electronic slate out of its belt holster. It fiddled with it a bit, pausing every few seconds to speak a few words of various Carapaced languages. Quotze thought about trying to pantomime “Artech-Westle Reformed”, but decided he would much rather not talk to this heavily armed alien.

Anyhow, I got to thinking about the limitations of this system and how that would effect both culture and the story. Body language can't be translated, that's for sure, but what really interested me was music. Because the AI translates for maximum accuracy, rhyme and meter would disintegrate across the language barrier.

"You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine."


"You are like a beast for hunting that despairs constantly. You have never caught prey and are not my friend."

Am I right my assessment of this flaw? Even assuming that the translator AI is packed with common idioms and sayings, wouldn't songs and poetry suffer with this kind of system? I'm especially curious how someone singing by themselves would sound, as well as how interplanetary "pop"-music could work.

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    $\begingroup$ you might be interested in Google Translate Sings $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Sep 12 '18 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ There is a set of novels by Stanislaw Lem "Inwazja z Aldebarana" (The Invasion from the Aldebaran, I'm afraid it hasn't been translated to English, I found references to Polish, Czech and Russian versions only) with one novel following the very same title. In this novel the said invasion is repelled (among others) because the translation is done in a manner you suggest ;-) $\endgroup$ – Ister Sep 12 '18 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ This also reminds me of a song by Adriano Celentano called Prisencolinensinainciusol which was "written to mimic the way English sounds to non-English speakers." It's a very interesting listen and hit No. 1 in Italy for a while. It also reminds me of an episode of Star Trek TNG "Darmok". The crew find a species of aliens which they can understand the individual words, because of the translator, but which remains meaningless because they don't understand the culture. It is one of the best episodes and is a good watch. $\endgroup$ – Nikolay Arabadzhi Sep 12 '18 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ This is pretty much exactly the problem that human translators run into, and the reason why it’s much, much harder to translate comedies than dramas. How do you translate a play on words or a joke relying on a double entendre (and so on) or a funny cultural misunderstanding when your target language or culture doesn’t have those things? There’s really no good solution. If you’re going for realism, your best approach might be to simply acknowledge the inherent limits of translation. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Sep 12 '18 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ I thought you meant actual nonsense lyrics, like "bargle nawdle zouss", or "Sha na na na, sha na na na na" $\endgroup$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Sep 13 '18 at 0:13

12 Answers 12


I hate to spoil a setting, but from sociology perspective, this situation is not possible.

If everybody needs to talk to each other, a common language will emerge, simply for convenience of communication not affected by AI. Voice communication via mics is not the only situation, you want to read text and graffiti, understand garbled emergency warnings, sink advertizing messages directly into brains of native speaker, etc.
Observe how English is official language in India and EU, despite being a foreign language to everybody who lives there.

The only you can avoid common language is if people are so spread out that they each group talks only to a few others. But then it is feasible to have humans translate the artworks. And there might be little demand to translate artworks from other end of the galaxy, since context and culture are wildly different.

Finally, you can train AI to understand cultural references and shades of meaning: Observe how IBM's Watson has won Jeopardy. It is just that at current prices, it is cheaper to hire human translators (or make the art in English in the first place).

  • $\begingroup$ I'll challenge this. India was a part of UK for a very long time so it's natural that English is widely spoken there. Of course it works for them now since English indeed is a lingua franca in the common business communication. Still it can be tricky to run a normal everyday communication with a random foreigner met in the rural area. And I have experienced that in Italy, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, France, and Spain, all of them being EU states. On the other hand Google Translate already served its purpose during 2018 Football World Championship in Russia. Do not underestimate technology. $\endgroup$ – Ister Sep 12 '18 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Ister: India was never part of the UK. For some time, India was in a personal union with the UK, but the two crowns and the two countries remained separate. (For example, in 1920, India became a founding member of the League of Nations, alongside the UK and many others.) The British Empire was a complicated and sui-generis structure, very loosely united by the person of the monarch. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 12 '18 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ English is not a "foreign language to everybody" who lives in the E.U. Aren't you forgetting the Irish? Moreover, in the E.U. we distinguish between "official languages" (which are all 24 of the official languages of the member states), the "procedural languages" of the European Commission (English, French and German) and the "working languages" of the various E.U. institutions; for example, the working language of the European Central Bank is English, whereas the European Court of Justice uses French. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 12 '18 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ A common language cannot evolve where species with different sensory limits are involved. If one species communicates by creating patches of "colour" on their skin in a part of the spectrum that another species cannot even perceive, and another species communicates vocally in a part of the audio spectrum that another species cannot even hear then a common language is not possible. The closest you would get would be a standard "translator machine" language, that each other language would be translated to and from, but that does not address the OP's stated problem. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Sep 13 '18 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP thanks for clarification, I wasn't aware of this details. Anyway argument stands, for political reasons English was the main official language in India even though it was imported. As such it is widely known by default. It is really not the same in the whole EU even though it is quite widely spoken here as well. $\endgroup$ – Ister Sep 13 '18 at 7:18

You don't need to understand music to appreciate it.

I listen to japanese music without translation because I hear it from the openings on shows. I listen to vocaloid styled music without knowing the base language. The pacing of lyrics and the instrumentals mean more to me than the actual words.

Technically, Pop music already works this way. I can't have fun singing those repetitive lyrics but from a distance its not unpleasing to my ears.

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    $\begingroup$ I have to admit, telling someone to "just turn off the translator and listen" does seem like a good moment for a story. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion Sep 12 '18 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ My absolute favorite: Russian trap / rap, even though I don't speak a word of any slavic language $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Sep 13 '18 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ I just want to point out that a lot of vocaloid music has lyrics going in a completely different direction from the general feeling, and that is a deliberate choice. So, while you can "just listen", you will be appreciating a completely different thing compared to the original song. E.g., all the cheery-peppy songs about depression, abuse and suicide. $\endgroup$ – Alice Sep 13 '18 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ As @Alice said: yes, you can appreciate the music, but what you're getting is only a side of it. Just as if you got served some foreign meal and you left half of it untouched: it might be still good, but you're still missing an arbitrarily big part of it. What is sushi without soy sauce, or wasabi, or fish, or rice? (and even if you answer "sashimi", you still missed sushi). $\endgroup$ – hmijail Sep 13 '18 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ @DaveSherohman Ah, most certainly, that is by no means a new device, just talked about vocaloids since the answer mentioned them. A lot of old children and folk songs, when you think about them, are pretty creepy and talk of executions, plagues and the like. Little piggy went to the market not of its own accord. $\endgroup$ – Alice Sep 14 '18 at 12:24
  • "Earth has abut 4,500 languages spoken commonly":

    Actually there are only about 100 languages spoken natively by more than 0.1% of the population of Earth. Out of those 4500 languages, 4000 have minuscule numbers of speakers.

  • "Some parts of Scotland needs to be subtitled on British television" . . .

    . . . which is hardly unexpected given than (a) Scots and English are closely related yet different languages, and (b) there are many many local variants of English spoken in the British Isles. (Hint: very few people on the British Isles speak RP natively.)

  • "The AI translates for maximum accuracy":

    What does this even mean?

    Let's take a very simple example. Let's suppose that the AI is translating from French into English, and it hears the sentence "ils se tutoyaient". How will the AI translate this simple and ordinary French sentence into English?

    • The literal translation would be "they were speaking to each other using the second person singular". (And even this dreadful translation is not completely accurate, because it could equally translate "elles se tutoyaient" -- English simply does not have the possibility to express gender in the 3rd person plural personal pronouns. Not to mention that blindly rendering the French imperfect with the English past continuous is problematic.) I hope we can agree that such a stilted translation would not be acceptable.

    • A better translation would be "there was no formality between them", or maybe "they chatted informally".

    The point is that what is the "maximally accurate" translation depends very much on the purpose of the translation. That's why in a book or article on linguistics the phrase might be rendered "theymasc. [reflexive] use-second-person-singularimperf. pl.", whereas in a story it might be rendered "they were quite close": because there is never such a thing as the most accurate translation, only the best translation for the specific purpose.

    Which brings us to the problem of poetry . . .

  • "Rhyme and meter would disintegrate across the language barrier":

    First of all, rhyme and meter are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of poetry.

    But anyway we know that great poets can actually translate poetry. You see, in the case of poetry the maximally accurate translation is not the plodding literal translation, but the translation which best carries the beauty and mystery of the poem; literal accuracy is of secondary importance.

    Sometimes, a translation is so successful that it becomes the standard rendition in the target language. For example, it doesn't matter one iota what is the literal meaning of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat #51: in the English language, the standard, fixed, and unquestionable form is that given by Edward FitzGerald: "the moving finger writes: and, having writ, moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it".

    This is why, when poetry is quoted in a book, a human translator won't even attempt to translate it if there already is a good translation; the poetry will be quoted in the already established form, which a footnote indicating the source.

    As for the meter, it is sometimes preserved, sometimes adapted; for example, the famous English translation of the Iliad by George Chapman is written in iambic heptameter ("Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd"...) whereas the original is, of course, in dactylic hexameter.

  • "What really interested me was music":

    Music does not need to be translated. What could possibly mean to translate Bach's Brandenburg Concertos? Translate from what into what?

    Maybe you mean "translate the lyrics"; this is simply a subcase of translating poetry, with the difference that in the case of song lyrics rhyme and meter are much more important than meaning.

    Given that in the overwhelming majority of cases the lyrics are of secondary importance, a pretty loose translation is generally perfectly acceptable, as long as it fits with the music. (For example, in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, the standard French version for "defer, defer to the Lord High Executioner" is "honneur, honneur pour le très puissant Exécuteur" which, although not accurate, is close enough and, most importantly, fits with the music.)

  • $\begingroup$ There have even been cases where subtitles have been used in England for a particularly strong regional accent such as Brummie. $\endgroup$ – Sarriesfan Sep 13 '18 at 6:55
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    $\begingroup$ The problems with literal translation can be especially apparent with particularly literal-minded fansubbing groups for Japanese anime. $\endgroup$ – forest Sep 13 '18 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ The Scottish TV they are referring to was likely in Scottish-English and not Scots, since Scots isn't widely spoken as a first language (even though over a million people speak it as a second language) $\endgroup$ – Kevin Wells Sep 13 '18 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @KevinWells: Yes, of course, that's what I added that the British Isles are home to many varieties of English. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 13 '18 at 20:30

The translators don't need to be perfect, or even used at all, in order for different cultures to enjoy eachother's works.

Not every person who enjoys classical opera can speak 18th century Italian or French. Not every person who enjoys K-pop can speak Korean. Not every person who enjoys The Canterbury Tales can speak Medieval English. Not every person who enjoys modern art knows the meaning behind each piece. You probably didn't fully understand your favorite song's lyrics on the first listen, yet you still enjoyed it.

And when the market is big enough for some art form, custom translations will definitely be made in order to bridge the gap between cultures, as with certain works of art here on Earth.

  • $\begingroup$ Agree with you on everything except Canterbury. How do you enjoy a work of literature without knowing its language? ... Or do you mean for its poetic-ness, rhyming, etc? $\endgroup$ – Malandy Sep 12 '18 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Malandy, following the answers here, it seems like it would be fine either way. I believe he means when the language is not understood in a standard way. $\endgroup$ – theREALyumdub Sep 12 '18 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Malandy: Chaucer's Tales of Canterbury is of course available in Modern English translation, as well as in translations in many other languages; just as, for example, Homer's Odyssey is seldom read in the original Homeric Greek. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 12 '18 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP i disagree here, if you read translation, you enjoying interpretation made by translator rather than base source. If you have more complex text, and author uses complex wordplay specific for his language it will be lost during translation $\endgroup$ – user902383 Sep 13 '18 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ @user902383: "Wordplay" in the source language can either be substituted with wordplay in the target language, or dropped altogether. That's why translations always carry the translator's name: they are derived works, merging the creativity of the author with the creativity of the translator. Traduttore, traditore. There is normally a great difference between translating technical works and literary works; but sometimes, even technical works (for example, Knuth's Art of Computer Programming) will require a great deal of creativity. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 13 '18 at 12:16

Having someone speak to you while you are attempting to listen to music is annoying and distracting. Reading text is far easier. At the beginning of a live performance, the ushers give the standard pre-show speech - "Exits located at the front and rear of the stage, please silence all mobile devices," - as well as "If you would like to fully appreciate tonight's work, please turn your translators into subtitle mode." The visor will show the pre-translated lyrics, letting you enjoy both the music and the meaning without sacrificing either. If you're listening to pop music on the iPhone L, then you can just go into the options menu and turn Subtitles on.

  • $\begingroup$ The first two times I saw The Fellowship of the Ring were overseas. The "Elvish" sections sounded beautiful, but because the English language subtitles were overwritten in the local languages I was relying on my memory of the books until I saw an English language version later - your proposed tech would have been useful. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Sep 13 '18 at 1:27

The translation will not be accurate in terms of translating word for word. It'll be closer to getting the message, and formulating it in the best possible way in the new language.

The technology of AI and deep learning are still on their early stages but they develop rapidly now. You may predict that in few years, definitely in few dozen it'll be able to translate as accurately as professional interpreters or even better. It will be also able to recognise poetry lyrics. It might be that deep learning AI can be better at understanding poets emotions and messages that the poetry conveys than people do and if so, it'll translate better, probably keeping the rhythm and meaning of the original poem but using totally different wording. It might be also that it'll offer possibilities to decide on going from as strict wording to as strict meaning as possible setting with all shades in between. The worst case scenario is it will simply warn that this is a poetry and as such cannot be translated literally and the offered translation is just a very rough approximation.

Anyway music translation is PITA. Yet music itself can convey emotions so as already mentioned in other answers you may as well listen to the music not understanding the words at all. Of course sometimes it can lead to a misunderstanding, like in this song, with a cheerful music and extremely sad lyrics but those will be exceptions rather than a rule. So it might be music will be often listened in the original version and just like in our reality a will to understand it better can be a trigger to learn other languages even though in a normal conversation AI does the trick with 99,98% accuracy.

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    $\begingroup$ Having a little pop-up that warns about translation accuracy would be an obsolete godsend in this setting. Heck, if the wifi is enabled it could even offer a choice of translations. Maybe even AI translators have settings to translate idioms. "He worked like he was tending his wife's uncle's grave" (Japan) = "he worked like he was just running out the clock" (US) are basically interchangeable in meaning, so the AI could give the option of the original idiom or an approximate for the listener's language, for example. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion Sep 13 '18 at 14:38

Yes and No... So assuming you have a "musically inclined" translation AI there's no real problem.Lyrics can be twisted pretty hard before they're unacceptable, just see how many ways you can sing some rap without it sounding atrocious. If it's figuring out how to fit the new words into the song then there's no issue. However, you do lose a lot of original quality to the song. It can even go as far as missing intent like your example seems to stray towards. And there will usually be a gravitation of the original lyrics towards the beat of the song that your new lyrics, while keeping beat, might not necessarily have. You also have compact cultural reference, idioms, and metaphors that don't translate well and most of the time don't translate at all. I know you stated dodging that bullet for the most part. But for someone without the cultural references words can translate into a massive definition. And even then be incomplete.

As for the translation itself, even for someone fluent in just both languages and having communication with the original author the process... let's just say it's intense. You're not likely to get it perfect or even close with an AI. You're asking a computer to solve P=NP.

Of course assuming P=NP in your universe, you could do this to perfection. Whether perfection results in capturing all the qualities of the music is once again up for debate. But you could prove you did your best. Not that you need perfection if you want to toss P=NP. And a quantum AI has an entirely better shot at solving this problem without P=NP if you want to skirt the fanciful science.

So depending on how hard you want to twist science and your listener's ear the answer ranges from Yes to No. Your best bet is probably to just do a direct translation with some kind of emotional meter at the top. Which, that said, some emotion via music doesn't need lyrics. Just listen to some traditional Irish keening and you'll see what I mean. There's tons of cultural music that just doesn't need a translation.

  • $\begingroup$ Was thinking on this in terms of taste (sense of flavor, mouth), the other day and thinking about my pet theory on that. Let's just say I realized that for chemical reasons in that theory avocados may not go well with onions for every creature, even if I find guacamole delicious. This is due to a background palate of "acceptable" and "strength", if you were to translate this theory to music, then some alien might find dissonance pleasing, or even white noise (due to "infinite" harmony). So you may have music that doesn't have the "musical" quality translate either... $\endgroup$ – Black Dec 4 '18 at 1:56
  • $\begingroup$ ....the notes would have to change. But there might not be a one-to-one mapping. How do you map all the infinite forms of white noise to discrete notes? You can't. If the group of sounds/"notes" is too large in one group compared to the translation, you'll lose some range, even if you make the quality the same. $\endgroup$ – Black Dec 4 '18 at 1:58

This is addressed in actual cannon on Star Trek, which has similar devices, in the episode Darmok. Here, Picard makes a first contact mission to an alien Race known as the Tamaran. The translator devices translate them perfectly... but their language is so littered with idioms, it's just as good spoken in the Tamaran words as it is in English. The title takes its name from the phrase to describe the pair's relationship "Darmock and Jelad at Tenagra." As you can see, it's clear the ambassador is making a reference that is lost without knowledge of the story, it would be similar to me saying to an alien who understood English "Thor and Hulk at Sakaar" vs. "Rodgers and Stark in Russia" or "Thanos, when he snapped his fingers.". Idioms do find common use into language all the time.

As part of personal headcannon with Star Trek, I also believe nuance in the Klingon language is why we do not hear the best accurate translation when Klingon characters use certain words. A common greeting in Klingon is "Qapla'" and a common insut is to refer to someone as "petQ'" (the capitalization is correct, fyi). These roughly translate to "Success" and "(someone) without out honor" and are used frequently enough in Star Trek that viewers know this even if they don't speak Klingon... My theory here is that the English translation is the best near translation that the translation device has for the word, but the word describes a specific concept related to success and lack of honor that these best translations still don't convey appropriate enough meaning... and the idea expressed is such nuanced in Klingon Culture the best way to translate it is to use it as it is written... there's nothing closer in English. This of course is my theory, so don't put that on cannon. A real word example would be an English speaker saying "As the French say, it has a certain je ne sais quoi"... and the alien's hearing in their native tongue "Blik blop French vika, bo voka g keltan je ne sais quoi." The English use of the French phrase "Je ne sais quoi" has a very specific meaning that only the word proper can describe. "Je ne sais quoi" which literally translated means "I don't know what" but to English Speakers, it has an idiomatic expression meaning "a thing that I cannot put into words"... which for purposes of discussion, yes, is an intended pun for the problem we're having... the phrase is understood by it's native speaker as having a rather broad meaning but by the non-native speaker, it has a very specific meaning that the phrase is the best word to describe that specific meaning... and to an alien with no understanding of French or what a French is, it won't get the correct meaning without probing the earthling for a better meaning of the phrase.

Of course, there is the opposite. For example, a joke in a conversation between a wife and her responding husband goes "Do I look pretty or ugly?" "I think you look pretty ugly." is sometimes called "The Universal Pun" as it perfectly translates into a broad range of languages that are not related. For example, the direct translation in Chinese validly tells the pun, despite the fact that most puns do not translate well as the humor relies on word play. Another example of this is the English word "Dream" and the Japanese word "Yuma" mean the same exact thing in every possible context (either the images seen while sleeping or a long term goal or desire for something) despite the languages having no prior relationships (Japanese had no major English influence until the post-WWII occupation, where they began using a lot of loan words from American English).

  • $\begingroup$ That's some interesting points. It would be fascinating if some key phrases and words were deliberately left untranslated because of their cultural importance. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion Sep 14 '18 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ @PinionMinion: Does not have to be culturally relevant at all. Most aliens do not have lions? How do we define that. You can even do it in one language that both people are fluent in: "Without using any objects that are green, describe to me what green looks like?" $\endgroup$ – hszmv Sep 14 '18 at 14:12

As you said a true universal translator will be a form of AI, there is to much contingency, syntax, and euphemism in a language to translate directly without intelligence. to accurately translate a language you need to understand it, to understand it you need to be intelligent. That means the AI will be intelligent enough to identify babble when it is see/hears it. Especially since it will be a frequent feature of music. The AI will be able to translate as well as a fluent speaker of each language. This also has the added bonus that when presented with a new language the translator will learn the new language and rather quickly.

Larry Niven handled it interestingly, Universal translators are AI that are paid in internet access, along with a a programmed basic desire for honesty and accuracy. The universal translators are a people in their own right.


I think, that it is actually even worse, than you think it is. You mentioned the flaw in translation of poetry in your example, but it still relate to similar background and mental frame, which is not automatic.

Sometimes the best what (almighty) AI could do would be only really simplyfied and shortened explanation of overall meaning of the "text" in question and some loosly related recomandations, how to react on it. And it does not aply only to music/poetry/art ...

From my own experience - I was talking something with one friend (A) - half a hour long at least and in details, it was interesting and educational for both of us. Then I had to answer another friend's (B) question: "What you two was talking about all the time? I did not get even a hint..." after many attempts the best what we (I and B) came to was answer like "There was a big problem, supposedly not solvable, but I could solve it anyway, with a lot of time, work, knowledge, black magic and wild queses, and was able to save about 99% of their data".

And all three of us was native speakers speaking in our native language. Just our lives went different paths over time and we get different knowledge backgrounds. And event the (almighty) AI could not translate that from the same lang to the same lang much better, if the explanation should take less than couple of months at best. It could copy it word by word, each of the words would be "known" to the listener, but the meaning of it would not go thru and the listener would be like "I understand each and every word, but I have no idea, what that all means". And commenting on each the word and their relations and the meaning of all of that would take weeks and weeks of explanations and the message would be hard to get.

In music/poetry/any performance such long explanations would mean missing the point anyway, as it would be to late to react.

Should the friend B was manager at the time of the problem, than all technical data would be unimportant anyway - my report would be "It is really bad, no sure solution is known, but I can try something and have or have not some results. Should I try it anyway (and possibly waste lot of time and money on it and maybe fail) or should we just accept the loss and do not try to save anything?"

Should the friend A was manager, I would talk in all details about the situation, as there could be some informations in it for him to give somehow relevant order.

Both of that should be resolved in matter of hours at that time, else there would be big problems in the company. (My boss at that time just asked, how bad it is (it was really bad) and if there is even slighest chance to try to recover anything. (I told him, that maybe few percent, if we are really happy and that it can take weeks and spare hardware). He decided, that it should be tried at any cost and that I should not do any work, take any phone and take no other commands from no one, until it is solved, or totally lost. The talk took like 3 minutes.)


Disney does it

Have you ever seen musical Disney movies in other languages? (The Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, ...). This is an example of a huge detailed work done in the translation of the message present in a song, mantaining the melody and the rythm and even keeping a proper rhyme.

So the answer is: If Disney can translate songs successfully to other languages, the same can be done by an advanced AI Translator that has enough context of the cultures and civilizations involved.


The melody, beat and pacing of a song is far more important than just the lyrics. Lyrics can improve a song, but if you just took the lyrics and spoke them out no one is going to listen to you. If you want some real world examples "despacito" and "gangnum style" were huge songs despite being in another language. People sang them in their native language as well, rather than translating them into english because the words worked better with the beat, rhythm and background track.

Fundamentally its a language problem, where different ideas and concepts are delivered in different ways. English for us is often the easy one. Switch to Japanese or Chinese and the sentences often feel backwards. We can still translate the words, but often you need to wait until the entire phrase/sentence is finished before you can. The simplest example would be hello in chinese. Ni Hao. If I start with just Ni it means you. Add the Hao which means good forms Hello. Now if I add an extra Ma it means How are you, rather than You good(?), although you could still use that, It would simply confuse the difference between the statement Hello and the question You Good? and cause some pretty basic on the go translation problems (If I spoke it very slowly, would you translator translate it on the fly and restate the new word? would it use the immediate translation or should it wait for the entire phrase to end before translating).

Next would be some words which have very hard to express meanings. I'm not going to go into depth, but here is a link with more example https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-21634,00.html I'm just going to copy a couple parts out: The Japanese have a word 'natsukashii' which is used when describing something which brings back nostalgic memories or takes them back in time. They also have a word 'genki' which describes a state of general well-being..healthy, lively, happy etc. I don't think we have any comprehensive one-word translations of these in English.

Finally some words and concepts don't exist in certain languages and so you literally won't be able to translate them. Take the Australian aboriginal people. Their language didn't have a word for time because of their belief that everything was linked together rather than individual separate events. (I'm doing a poor job explaining this, so if there is anyone who knows a lot more about this feel free to step in).

Another fun example would be the use of the term ""Squanch " in Rick and Morty. It doesn't have a fixed meeting but instead depends upon the context of its use.

Basically, a translator would botch any sort of language where compounded words have different meanings to the individual words. English would also suffer from this. A person who wants to sing a song they like, will likely do it in the language it was written/heard/sounds like rather than in their native language. The exception would be if they went to the effort of translating all or part of it, so that it fit in with the music and beat. Otherwise your just listening to a terrible singer who is tone death, off tune and off beat.


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