79 Comments

  1. I recall one ST episode where, thanks to the universal translator, our heroes believed the alien civilization they were contacting “worshiped the sun” — only to find eventually they were some sort of neo-Christian variety who “worshiped the Son.” So apparently the universal translator liked puns (no matter how unlikely it would have happened to work out thus in an alien language), just to mess with Federation minds or something?.

    (Not a translator thing, but I was also really bothered by an episode where we were told today was “Thanksgiving back on Earth.” I assume Canada lost out on the “let’s just pick one day for it, O.K.?” negotiations, and even harder cheese for all of those former Earth nations who wouldn’t have had a reason for celebrating such a holiday at all.)

  2. Th “worship the Son” episode was best forgotten. Along with the equally-contrived nonsense with the misspelled variation of the Declaration of Independence.

  3. Bill: In Darmok, the universal translator can’t understand anything the aliens are saying, but it can apparently still translate the proper names well enough for the crew to look them up in the ship’s computer. Which are in there despite the fact that no one has been able to communicate with these aliens before. Go figure.

    Shrug: What bothered me more about that was the idea that all civilations go through a “bad phase” where they worship the sun, and a “good phase” where they worship the Son. (It would make sense if the show was written by Christian apologists, but it seemed nonsensical in the context of an otherwise atheistic show.)

  4. In Darmok, my understanding was that the UP translated everything just fine: but without context, it was useless.

    Like if a Frenchman said “C’est comme si Harry avait menti à Alice au sujet de la jambe de la reine.” The UP (or Google) will tell you it means “This is like the time Harry lied to Alice about the Queen’s leg,” which is both completely accurate and totally worthless.

    (I was going to go with “Une promenade de neuf mile n’est pas une blague, surtout sous la pluie.,” but that would have been distractingly esoteric)

  5. Unless, in this planet’s language, “son ” and “sun” were also homophones, there’s no way the UP would make this mistake.

    Unless this were a stunning coincidence.

  6. The notion that each person has one proper name and that it’s somehow indissolubly linked to their identity (so changing it affects that identity, and so that being called other things, like “Bob’s Mom” is weird) is very occidecentric.

    So, a question: can anyone identify an old SF story in which someone ends up in the distant future where (among other predictable things, like inflation) there’s a custom of contextual naming? As I recall it went something like parent and offspring both calling each other “mom” because that’s unambiguous in that context. But I only vaguely remember and may be conflating multiple things…

  7. “Unless, in this planet’s language, “son ” and “sun” were also homophones, there’s no way the UP would make this mistake.”

    Well, maybe the UP didn’t make the mistake but everyone listening to the UP made the mistake.

    … But honestly, I *hated* the idea for exactly *all* the reasons others have given.

  8. The challenge of mass-media science-fiction is that learning a new language is difficult and slow. So they work in a magical solution… telepaths, universal translators whose exact functions are undescribed, or just having everybody speak modern English with no explanation at all for this.
    Literary SF has had a few authors take a swing at working out how aliens who have nothing in common would work out a way to communicate. H Beam Piper had a good one with “Omnilingual”. Another one I remember only vaguely involved humans meeting aliens at the front of the colonization wave working its way around the spiral arms of the galaxy. The aliens turn out to be humans coming from around the other direction, with enough time having been taken that evolution produced changes so that the humans coming clockwise were unrecognizable to the humans coming from counter-clockwise.

  9. Even if the people listening to the UP were in error, this still required both “son” and “sun” to be objects of worship on Earth.

  10. Card made a whole taxonomy of different kinds of aliens you can’t be friends with in different ways. It always kind of bothered me.

  11. “Card made a whole taxonomy of different kinds of aliens you can’t be friends with in different ways.”

    Yeah, the Mormons were supporters of California Measure 8.

  12. I vaguely recall the story James Pollock vaguely recalls. I thought it might be from an early-to-mid sixties GALAXY and that it might be by Robert Silverberg and that it might have a title something like “Meeting at Infinity,” but I can’t verify any of those, so consider them wild guesses (or glitches from my brain’s universal translator).

    One of my favorite sf lingustics stories is Robert Sheckley’s “Shall We Have a Little Talk”? which is analyzed at length here

    http://tenser.typepad.com/tenser_said_the_tensor/2006/09/shall_we_have_a.html

    and this is only one of a longish series on the linguistics/sf interface on that site (including pieces on “Omnilingual” and the Darmok STAR TREK episode, already mentioned in this thread.

  13. James Pollock (JULY 13, 2018 AT 10:04 PM) — that last one sounds like a fascinating story idea.

  14. Yes, well, if it weren’t already a published story, I might be able to make something of it. Alas, it usually turns out that my great story ideas are already contained in stories published by someone else.

  15. The difficult and slow challenge of learning an alien language was the central plot element of a recent movie,Arrival. I didn’t find it entirely convincing, but it made a good movie anyway. (It’s based on a short story, “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.)

    I also remember a story about human colonists meeting up with themselves. I’m pretty sure it was a short story. Harlan Ellison comes to mind as a possible author, but no way I would swear to that.

  16. Harlan Ellison is likely not the right answer, since I don’t read him much.

    Thinking about “Arrival” made me remember that I forgot one of the magical outs: Letting the aliens solve the problem (prime example: 2001, better executed example, 2010 or Contact).

  17. James Pollock: I asked for help on another of my lists, and Dave Langford identified the story you were recalling: it’s by Harry Harrison, “Final Encounter” (April 1964 Galaxy).

    (So I had the magazine and time period right and the title in the ballpark, but author wrong. )

  18. Silverberg for Harrison is an easy mistake; no points deducted.
    That’s the way my memory works… I remember specific details… except for the NAMES that go along with the story. I can’t tell you how frustrating that is in law school, where, of course, the names are used as shorthand for the fact pattern and legal reasoning of the ruling.
    I’ve read most of Harrison’s short works. I stopped keeping up with Slippery Jim around the eighth or ninth novel, and the alternate-history stuff doesn’t appeal to me, so I didn’t follow him down that particular path, either.

  19. Thank you, Shrug (and Dave). It’s in a collection on my shelf (Galactic Empires), with a cute intro: “Far in the future, they discovered a new natural law; what goes up must come round. …”

  20. Harry Harrison. Yep, that’s the story I remember too. I had a hunch Ellison was wrong.

  21. A staple on the old rec.arts.sf.written usenet group is the YASID, “Yet Another Story ID”.

  22. Thanks again (to Shrug, Dave, and to James for bringing it up in the first place) for the pointer to Harrison’s “Final Encounter.” Not only did it end roughly as James said, but the alien humans had already prepared an excellent system to learn the intruding humans’ language — event though they had apparently never encountered any other aliens.

  23. I have several versions of my name that exist – Meryl maiden married, Meryl maiden, Meryl married, Mrs. Robert married. Then there are the magazines that get my name wrong – which is good, because when they sell one’s name that is incorrect, one knows who sold their name.

    Then I have my “other” name – Anne Everyman (pronounced Evramon) for my alternate 18th century self. More properly she would be Mrs. Alexander Everyman.

  24. @ Meryl A – One person in my family used a different middle initial for each magazine subscription, for exactly the same reason. This kind of subterfuge is unnecessary here. Even before the new GDPR, German law already prohibited selling address lists (as well as cold calling).

  25. I don’t play any of those games, but I AM amazed sometimes by the mass mailings that do find their way to me.

    Just yesterday I received an advertising flyer for people new to HR (I don’t do HR, and never have) addressed to the employer I left ten years ago, at my new address that I never had during the time I was employed there.

  26. Maybe they got my address from the collection agency that sent me a letter about the unpaid bills the phone company sent me (at my new address) after I sold my house and no longer had phone or Internet service. They sent the bills to my new address, which tells me that part of their billing operation was on top of things while another, more important, part was totally incompetent at their job. OK, easy mistake to make except they kept doing it after I sent them a letter pointing out that they were trying to bill me for service they weren’t providing to me, and I could prove it because someone else owns that property and lives there and I live somewhere else and say, you’re already sending the bills to the somewhere else where I don’t have a phone line, and if I did it would have been provided by a different local telephone company. They sent it out for collections, too.

    I don’t want to name names but yes, actually, I do to. Frontier Communications. The service was excellent when it was Verizon, because I lived in a well-off neighborhood that got undated equipment, not one of the poor neighborhoods where they let the copper networks sit and rot. The handover from Verizon to Frontier went smoothly, as well. But both the customer-service and the billing operations dropped the ball, and kept falling over trying to pick it back up.

    Ranting over. Please continue with your usual daily routine.

  27. James Pollack – we have Verizon copper wire service and work hard at keeping it. After Hurricane Sandy I had to try to contact members of my embroidery chapter to tell them that the meeting was being canceled. I was able to reach two other members who also had copper wire service. Everyone else we had to hope that they would figure out the meeting was canceled.

    When the electricity goes out – I have my copper wire phone to call the electric company and let them know. Yes, I have a cell phone – but if I use it for all this when I have no electricity I will need to figure out how to recharge it.

    The copper line phone – just pick it up and if there is phone service (which for some reason goes out so less often than the electricity ) I have phone service and “Apple can call me 12 times in 3 days while I am away and tell me that my device can no longer be used – even though I don’t have one.

    On the other side – we happen to own a very small amount of shares in both Verizon and Frontier – and the latter is holding on by its finger nails. After reorganizing it self and issuing new shares, they stopped paying dividends – and their dividends before this were return of capital, not actual dividends.

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