An explorer arrives from a "far away land" where they have "indistinguishable from magic" level technology. Singularity level at least. (This technology includes stuff like grey goo nano assemblers, high temperature super conductors, highly portable quantum computers, swarms of microscopic smart drones, and probably a lot more.)

Of course he would not know the local language, but with the technology at his disposal it would be silly to fall back on pointing and grunting, and he doesn't have an extended amount of time to learn the language the traditional way.

I was originally thinking some kind of a brain scan to learn the language by scanning locals and picking out the neural pathways of the language centers (or something like that), but I don't really like it.
I'd love to have a better explanation than that.

  • $\begingroup$ If he arrives on Earth, he could probably get a lot out of scanning the internet. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias would of great use to him as they have pictures. $\endgroup$
    – Varrick
    Nov 13, 2015 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ A brain scan would be significantly more difficult to decode into language than the spoken word with some pointing. It's not as if the brain has some 'universal language' that gets translated into human language on the way out. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 13, 2015 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Varrick I didn't think to put it in the question, but the location he's arriving at is somewhere with bronze/iron age level advancement... A good idea otherwise. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Nov 13, 2015 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel Yeah, I don't really like the idea, but you'll sometimes see in stories where the aliens/fay/elder gods kind of skip the whole language issue by telepathically communicating or otherwise bypassing the language centers of the subject. And there has been some work recently with brain scans to where they can get an idea of what the person is thinking. Almost mind reading, in a super limited way. That being said, it's still a little more messy than I like. I'm hoping to keep the fantastical stuff as plausible as possible. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Nov 13, 2015 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ Can you avoid having to explain it? If you had to explain it with real science, there would be a valid argument that it could not be done short of creating a machine capable of perfect telepathy. Or can you do it Zoboso's way, where instead of having a universal translator, you have a "best effort" translator gobbed together from a bunch of data? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 13, 2015 at 20:27

6 Answers 6


Since he has such high level technology, give him the following tools:

  • A set of drones that fly around and collect data on the way the local species communicates
  • A portable device that converts that data into either images/radio waves/sound/whatever the local species is using to communicate; this could perhaps be something phone sized, which uses holograms for images, or just has speakers for sound, etc etc.

All he would have to do is let the drones fly around and follow the indigenous species for a couple days to collect data, and have the device convert the data into something usable (He probably has more than enough processing power to do it with anyways).

When the device is ready, he can go out with the device and let the device help him communicate, where it's used as a middleman.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, nearly undetectable surveillance drones and a computer powerful enough to analyze native communications is the standard science fiction answer nowadays I think. Can't remember anything better being suggested anyway. // We actually have the needed translation technology already, we just do not have good enough analysis to back it up in practice. $\endgroup$ Nov 14, 2015 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ Tiny autonomous drones are in his feature set, so that's really not a bad idea. It could even be part of an advance probe that could show up a few days ahead to start observing the language and customs... $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Nov 16, 2015 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ Then what's the difference between (tiny autonomous) drones and magic brain scanning machines, bar spelling? $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2020 at 14:19

A Universal Translator requires computers capable of Natural Language Parsing (Processing).

A natural language parser attempts to deconstruct/parse a natural human language into an abstract language neutral form and then process that for meaning. Once it knows what has been communicated, it searches its database for a translation into the target language. To an extent something like this is already done for documentation that must be produced for multiple languages. A special XML language (usually SGML or something like it) is used. Different tags are used to denote the same section but in a different language. When "loading" the document, you specify the tags to use (e.g. Spanish) and the document's Spanish version of the sections are rendered so the user only sees those. But current SGML document construction is not done automatically - instead it is done by people, but processed by machines.

Writing code to deconstruct a language so that a computer can understand it and then match that with an expression construct from another language has been a sort of Holy Grail of language processing for decades - and it is a very tough problem.

Up to the 1980s, most NLP systems were based on complex sets of hand-written rules. Starting in the late 1980s, however, there was a revolution in NLP with the introduction of machine learning algorithms for language processing. This was due to both the steady increase in computational power (see Moore's Law) and the gradual lessening of the dominance of Chomskyan theories of linguistics (e.g. transformational grammar), whose theoretical underpinnings discouraged the sort of corpus linguistics that underlies the machine-learning approach to language processing.[3] Some of the earliest-used machine learning algorithms, such as decision trees, produced systems of hard if-then rules similar to existing hand-written rules. However, Part of speech tagging introduced the use of Hidden Markov Models to NLP, and increasingly, research has focused on statistical models, which make soft, probabilistic decisions based on attaching real-valued weights to the features making up the input data. The cache language models upon which many speech recognition systems now rely are examples of such statistical models. Such models are generally more robust when given unfamiliar input, especially input that contains errors (as is very common for real-world data), and produce more reliable results when integrated into a larger system comprising multiple subtasks.

BOLDED section is of special importance.

We have switched to the introduction of a very narrow type of AI (artificial/machine learning). It means that with enough study and processing power and Star Trek style Universal Translator might one day be possible but it could probably not work as quickly as that shown in the movies.


A universal translator would have to be a very specialized and highly intelligent computer intelligence. Basically it would have to translate the same way human translators do, by understanding both languages and translating concepts. It would just be faster at both learning and translation the latter happening so fast there is no noticeable lag.

Preferable you want to design it to take pleasure in accurate translation and learning new languages, becasue an intelligence needs motivation. It will still have to learn any new language it encounters mostly through observation and later interaction.

The reason you need an intelligence is so much of language is contextual and revolves around the culture of the speaker, that's why translation programs produce a huge mess if you give them anything too complex. It gets even worse if the original statement is ambiguous, that's why you need something that can actually think so it can grasp idioms, subtext, tone, and even facial expression.

  • $\begingroup$ That's a lot of good points. The civilization that is being observed is bronze age, so no radio or other things, so all learning will have to be through direct observation. You raise a good point about the possibility of miscommunication, which has the potential to be useful in a story. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Dec 7, 2016 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this. One good example would be the AI from The Magineer. themagineer.com $\endgroup$
    – Morgan
    Nov 2, 2020 at 5:50

All you would have to do is let the explorer observe, because humans learn language though association. Then after accumulating a large enough sample (accelerated by the explorer's ability to follow everything that is going on at that time), the explorer would start to copy the things he has observed. Several conversations later, extrapolation begins, giving our explorer the ability to go beyond simply copying the locals conversations, and to construct sentences of their own.

In addition our wanderer would be able to understand some body language to give him additional context for what is being said, as some body language is universal between all cultures(joy, pain, anger, ...).

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure how this fulfills the "... he doesn't have an extended amount of time to learn the language the traditional way." portion of the question. Learning a language through observation is going to be tough for anyone, even those who have Sheldon Cooper intelligence. It will take time, which it appears, is something our adventurer does not have. $\endgroup$ Nov 13, 2015 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ my goal wasn't to learn a language, it was to imitate those who did. $\endgroup$
    – zoboso
    Nov 19, 2015 at 15:27

Our explorer has a device that connects the Broca's area of the local speaker with his own Wernicke's area.

The brain processes language as a symbolic representation. Broca's area is the region in the brain linked to speech production, it's located in the frontal lobe. On the other hand Wernicke's area is linked to speech comprehension, it's located near the ears.

The device consists of two parts:

  1. A brain wave scanner, directional, should be aimed towards the frontal lobe of the speaker. It can operate to distances up to 20 meters from the speaker. Usually mounted in the explorers helmet. There are hand-held models of limited range.
  2. A processing unit, with a special intra auricular headphone, that emits wave directly to the Wernicke's area of the explorer. Usually mounted on the helmet, there are portable units also.

The device operates as follow:

  1. Scans brain waves of the speaking local subject.
  2. Process the signal and injects into the explorer Wernicke's area.

It can work with any language spoken, but should need some calibration to adjust cultural differences.

It's a uni-directional device. The user can understand anything the local is speaking, but can't talk back in any other language but his own.

  • $\begingroup$ This sounds a little like the scientific method for telepathy one of the other answers suggested. Very interesting idea. Only working one way is a slight problem for communication, but it has potential for a fast way to learn a language; having someone say the word for horse and seeing the symbol for horse on the scan so you know what the word means. Maybe also combine it with the drone scouting mission idea to have a few days to pick up the language unobserved. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Dec 7, 2016 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ Of course, you can mount the scanner on a drone, and send the information to the processing unit through a radio signal (As long as you are within the range between the scanner and the subject, brain waves are not very strong). Being unidirectional is not a problem, the interlocutor may use another device to have a bidirectional communication. It depends on your trust to provide a device of this type to a local. But it may be a shocking experience for them. $\endgroup$
    – roetnig
    Dec 9, 2016 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ I forgot to mention that this device works too with high-intelligence animals, like apes, dolphins, and to certain extent with felines (not with dogs, they are simply too stupid) ;) $\endgroup$
    – roetnig
    Dec 9, 2016 at 12:22

Actually, your explanation sounds good on its own:

People don't think in words, people think in concepts that they have been conditioned to immediately associate with words. Maybe the translator could work telepathically like in Doctor Who?

  • $\begingroup$ Explaining it as just "Telepathy" is a little to close to magic for what I want, but having a semi plausible scientific method to get the same result is fine. I really like Dr Who, but the parts where it gets really corny are the parts where they stretch the tools to do things above and beyond anything plausible. I'm looking at you magic screwdriver. I hope I can one day be a better writer than the ones that work on that show, but on the other hand, it's been popular since long before I was born so who am I to judge. :) $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Nov 16, 2015 at 16:49

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