Someday we might live in the world that science fiction books and movie predict, complete with universal translation devices available to everyone.
Science fiction is a literary and entertainment genre that is traditionally very positive and optimistic about the future – except, of course, when it concerns eventual apocalypse or alien invasion or other horrifying futures. With those exceptions, science fiction has a strong tendency to offer a future where technology has solved many of our problems, even if dramatic tension is then created by the discovery of new problems – for example, a science fiction universe where death has been cured and everyone lives forever ... but the world is now an overcrowded hell without sufficient resources.
So, when a genre that generally believes technology will triumph offers us something like a Universal Language Translation Device it demonstrates the importance most people naturally associate with translation. After all, we can’t have a unified world boldly going out into space if we’re all struggling to understand each other, and we can’t greet our eventual alien overlords unless we can speak their language. And this sort of Universal Translator is pretty standard in science fiction.
Part of this, of course, is purely practical: Most authors or producers can’t possibly create a whole new language from scratch every time they create a new race of creatures, and can’t spend precious pages or screen time dealing with translation issues while the plot stalls. So having everyone magically be translated is a great hand-wave that keeps things moving briskly. On a show like Doctor Who, in fact, you might not even be aware that other races are not speaking English unless you happen to catch the occasional, perfunctory reference to a universal translator.
The presence of such a device in most science fiction, in fact, is pretty significant, as it demonstrates how important we consider communication to progress. Practicalities aside, science fiction tends to include such devices because the breaking of language and cultural barriers is obviously considered essential to progress, whether it be progress towards world peace or progress towards technological advances.
The fact is, throughout history we’ve always been aware that the first step towards any sort of progress is the ability to share ideas freely, which means being able to be understood. As a result, the presence of a Universal Translation device or technique is part of our hope for the future.
In reality, we’re not very close to such a technology, but we’re closer than you might think. While sticking something in your ear like Douglas Adam’s Babelfish is probably not realistic, it’s possible today for your smartphone to do some basic translation for you; Apps exist that can speak sentences for you, and even do some basic translation of spoken words for you. While far from the concept of a universal translation device, it does demonstrate the possibility.
It’s possible that someday very soon we’ll all be able to use our phones for basic communication – and that would be a good thing, and bring us one step close to the science fiction future.