Rather than a machine or computer to translate things, how could a sci fi drug of some sort (such as a pill that one or both parties has to take and be under the influence of, or a gas that fills an environment) act as a universal translator and allow users to understand other species’ languages by affecting their brain?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site blatherskiteb, we invite you to partake of our wonderful tour and refer to the help center as and when you might need it. Nice job of finding the correct tags for a first post. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2021 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ Is it supposed to be "instant", or is an adjustment/learning period allowed? $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 26, 2021 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ I was thinking instant, but if you’ve got a concept for it that involves a period of adjustment I’d still be interested in hearing about it $\endgroup$ May 26, 2021 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ VTO clark tech clearly, and not necessarly better than just runtime translation, 7 not so bad answers, anyone who answered care to cast another 3 reopen votes, eh? $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    May 27, 2021 at 8:37

7 Answers 7


Scientists have found that, no matter what languages they spoke, most of the test people exposed to meaningless sounds like zizi would associate them to spiky objects, while sounds like bubu would have been associated to more rounded objects (I am quoting this out of memory, so the sounds might be slightly different).

Now, let's assume because science-fiction that behind every word in every language there is a link to the "thing" signified with that word and that a rose will always be a rose also under another name, and imagine a drug which amplifies the capability of the brain to decode sounds, and let it connect the sound of a word with the "absolute substrate" out of which that word was made.

Under the influence of this drug everybody would understand that 私は魚を食べています means "I am eating a fish", because it would connect the "absolute substrates" of I, fish, eat, act of doing.

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    $\begingroup$ Every french speaker can back up the fact that "zizi" can be associated with "spiky objects" $\endgroup$
    – Kepotx
    May 26, 2021 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ Trouble is, can this be applied across species? Aliens might not use words or even vocals. With different frames of reference we're not able to say that the aliens would feel the same. Still a good answer. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 26, 2021 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane, there is the precedent of the Babelfish $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 26, 2021 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ That is fundamentally not how human languages work. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 26, 2021 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, this is worldbuilding, not linguistic. Some leeway is admitted $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 26, 2021 at 17:21

The universal translation "drug" isn't a drug.

Oh, it's administered and used like a drug, but it's actually an infusion of nanocomputers that have two functions. Obviously, they contain the software to not only translate a large sheaf of pre-loaded languages, but to learn other languages (the more bizarre the structure of the language, the longer that will take, of course), but the second function is just as important: they also construct neural interfaces to the optic and auditory nerves and to the language centers in the brain, allowing the nanomachine network to intercept sight and sound (there's an upgraded version that can work on scent and taste as well), perform the translation (in real time, for loaded languages) and convey the translated content directly to the language centers of the brain.

Going the other way, motor nerves to the mouth, throat, and hands are interfaced (the upgraded version also assumes control of normally autonomic functions like pheromone production, as well as adding additional chemosynthesis capability for scent-based languages), so that the user "speaks" the way they're used to doing, and their voice (and hands, and optionally their entire skin) produces the language they're currently communicating in.

Don't even ask about the ethical violations in the development tree that led to this capability -- but the end result is awesome, and bugs in the process are unheard of -- it says so right here in the sales brochure.

In the unfortunate case of the user allowing their subscription to expire, the nanomachines will harmlessly (it says so right here) dissolve into simple sugars and nutrients, leaving any non-original languages (the ones they've learned in service) backed up in multiple locations against the expected result of a mere late renewal; these backups are guaranteed to last a minimum of one year.

  • $\begingroup$ I nearly wrote the same, with the nanobots attaching to the word generation and meaning centers (Wernicke and Brocca) and some in the aliens too, which can then communicate and translate each meaning. However, it's not a drug, so I removed it (also I checked if someone had written it in the meantime). $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 26, 2021 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ This seems like it is the most probable. Imagining that different brains represent the same concept the same way is a bit too far-fetched for me, so trying to transfer the concepts without passing through the language centers and having machines doing the actual translation is a bit too much $\endgroup$
    – Nephanth
    Jun 4, 2021 at 13:47

Temporary super enhanced language learning

Language is difficult. Even within humans we have words that don't, or are difficult to translate to another language. Even within the sake language, with dialects of big cities not far from another, I found that people can use a word as an insult or as everyday use. Interspecies it becomes so much more difficult. The way one speaks can be different, but also the importance can radically change. To learn something from the ground up takes years, just look at babies. Even if there's a basis it can take a long time. There are a 1001 things that can go wrong. A drug is near impossible to be of assistance.

Caveats out of the way, a "real" drug could work as the following: The drugs are taken, together with a machine on the head that helps the drugs find the way to the right brain area's. The targets are word generation, word meaning, empathy and cultural understanding.

There the drug changes the DNA expression to become as neuroplastic or even more than a babies. Together with a boatload of materials and energy for nerve growing, a rapid learning process can begin. Training is preferred, but mayne it works so well you can start talking and quickly you start to understand the meanings behind it. You can extrapolate a lot from there according to some research.

Why wouldn't you use this with other parts of the brain? Huge neuroplasticity isn't what you want everywhere. Parts like the brainstem and cerebellum are better off with stability. You don't need to learn much more with heart control, digestion or vascular control. That is why you want to target specifics when needed, like with language learning.


Have a panpsychic reality, and the drug induces a shared consciousness.

If you decide to have panpsychism be a true feature of your universe, then you could use it as a ground to argue (or just handwave) for the plausibility of a conscious entity being put in such a state-of-mind that they end up picking up, sharing or leaking consciousness with their surroundings.

If your universal translation drug were instead a mind-altering drug that causes the user to receive or leak consciousness in this manner, then having two nearby sentient beings use the drug at the same time could allow them to communicate at a sort of shared-experience level, where the languages in which the thoughts are composed come packaged with their own interpretations.

Leaving it at this point would come with lots of corollaries, however, many of which could be showstoppers or add too much noise to your worldbuilding:

  • It would be either impossible or a really cunning trick to lie to someone using the drug.
  • Because of this, one might be forced to take the drug as part of an interrogation in order to obtain information.
  • There would probably be a thriving trade in using the drug to share experiences that are particularly valuable, or educational, or interesting, or...ahem...yes.
  • You probably need to worldbuild a sensible picture of the "background noise" of conscious experience of everything else in their vicinity when they use the drug (all the way down to the fundamental wave/particles; all the way up to the lower hierarchies of their own brains?) and how they filter it out.

You could perhaps overcome some of these by designing around them, such as:

  • Making users capable of "closing" their minds voluntarily while under the influence of the drug,
  • Creating side effects which would render the drug unenjoyable to use as a form of recreation,
  • Limiting the experiences being shared in some way (perhaps direct sensory is not shared, only "internal monologue"; perhaps you're limited to what the other entity is currently focusing on, etc.)

Could be fun. Could be too much. Hope it's helpful :)

  • $\begingroup$ I like the concept of Panpsychism, as it answers some questions of my own. Thank you! $\endgroup$
    – Len
    May 26, 2021 at 20:29


Each pill has several thousand nanorobots which have three basic functions:

  1. They find and latch onto specific neurons
  2. They can sense and produce an electric potential, taking energy from the ambient environment
  3. They can communicate to other nanorobots via background EM Waves, ambient Wi-Fi

The nanorobots find the language center in the brain and due to previous conformal mapping of the brain's networks, they are aware where exactly in the brain they need to cross the BBB(Blood Brain Barrier) to gain access to these neural networks and attach to respective neurons (both for language processing and speech generation)

Due to the presence of free Ultra-high bandwidth Wi-fi everywhere, when they sense neural networks firing in a particular pattern which is similar to a pattern stored in the World's Linguistic Data base, they identify the language being spoken by the speaker.

The host's activation pattern of the neurons in the speech generation area is now responsible for harnessing the linguistic data from nanobots in the language processing area and utilizing the database data over Wi-Fi to control the neurons firing in the speech generation area to produce speech in the other language.


The nanorobots can use background EM waves/ Wi-Fi to also send data across two hosts who are not separated by a distance over 5 meters. This data is directly transmitted between nanorobots at language processing centers which fire respective neurons upon translation, and hence this acts as telepathy.


Bioengineered semi-parasitic symbiotic bacteria

The pills contain a special bacteria, specifically for a (or several) group(s) of languages and cultures. The bacteria moves to the brain, identifying the language center. There it'll start the consumption of the brain matter, replacing ut with itself and growing nerve tissue. This process continues until the full language center is taken over. They grow initially in a set pattern, which makes the right connections to understand the important human and alien languages, as well as some dialects. After the initial growth the bacteria will behave just like mormal nerves, being fed by the host and making new connections where needed.

Replacement by symbiotic or parasitic organisms is quite commonplace. An example us a parasite that goes into the mouth of a fish, constricts the tongue until it dies off and then takes it's place, functioning as a tongue.

This is a bioengineered product, meaning its specific to the species. The aliens need a different one, tailored to them. Earlier products had to be engineered specifically per person to avoid rejection. Nowadays the bacteria is so good it blends in with most subjects immune sysrems without further engineering. The ones that are rejecting the bacteria are unfortunate and will have to go to surgery immediately to remove the debris and see what's hasn't been devoured of the language center.

The pill needs to be engineered again with each new species, so after a new species is discovered it'll take time before the pills are ready.


Humans find the virtual communication environment disconcerting.

Just humans need to take the drug. There is another species that takes another drug and a couple of species that just cant do it. Several species do OK with no drug but one must sit still while they do it.

There is a virtual environment that hacks into brain pattern structures and facilitaes communication. Communication happens via a Snow Crash type virtual environment, or a Pokemon Go virtual overlay - that is the experience of the humans anyway. The AI might do it differently for other species.

For the humans, having the AI add stuff to the perceptual environment is disconcerting at best and in some cases sickening. People can freak out. The drugs make it easier to accept what is happening and roll with it.

The drugs change other aspects of reality though in mostly tolerable ways.

There will of course come a time when the human protagonists need to communicate without drugs and so enter the program "sober". It is a different experience.


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