The universal translator is a classic Star Trek plot device that makes encounters with alien civilizations much less awkward. "Alienese" goes in and American English comes out — at least on television in 1967.

But that's just television. When a Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics starts talking about it, however, that's something worth taking a closer look at.

Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, posits that all language has a universal structure. Regardless of whether the aliens communicate with sounds, pictures or even odors, there must be a set of rules that govern the communication.

One common way to denote an object, for example, involves pointing to it and then emitting an expression. Whether you use an index finger, a tentacle or antennae, you've just directly referenced the object.

Professor Deacon argues that even abstract symbols can be understood as referencing words that point directly to real objects in the physical world we all share. If that is true, it should be possible to have a device that uses software to tease apart the symbols of a completely alien language and then determine how they reference the world; in other words, a universal translator.

Other science-fictional references to the idea of a universal translator for alien speech include the famous Babel Fish from Douglas Adams' 1979 novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the translator discs from Larry Niven's 1970 novel Ringworld.

As far as I know, the first science-fictional reference to the idea of automatic speech translation is found in Hugo Gernsback's 1911 classic Ralph 124c 41 +. It only worked for human languages, though; appropriately, it was called a language rectifier. The first real-life efforts in the area of automated language translation came about in the late 1940's, as US intelligence agencies struggled with a mass of Russian language documents.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of