Machine translation in fiction

Translation is not only a job or a discipline, it is an incredibly present phenomenon in our daily lives. Globalisation, as well as technological advances of recent decades, have made it possible for cultures, and therefore languages, to be within everyone’s reach. Translation has never been more necessary than it is now.

Rumours abound about machine translation softwares that are revolutionizing the market today. On many occasions, these rumours claim that, given its advanced technology and detailed algorithms, these programs can already replace the role of the translator. At Eazylang, we have carried out an experiment on this matter, and we have found that, in order to accomplish a quality translation, it is impossible to ignore such role.

Translation, an omnipresent phenomenon

As I have explained before, translation is very present in our daily lives. For this reason, many films, books and audiovisual products cover topics related to the world of translation in their stories. Let’s look at some examples:


1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This science fiction bestseller, written by Douglas Adams, tells the story of Arthur Dent, a human who, faced with the sudden extermination of planet Earth, must learn how to live in outer space. To do so, he uses a book called “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which explains all the peculiarities of life outside the Earth. One of these peculiarities is The Babel Fish, a small fish that, if introduced into the auditory cavity, simultaneously translates all the languages of the galaxy. The creature has inspired the name of numerous machine translation tools.

In addition to the novel, the Babel Fish also appears in the film adaptation (2005), starring Zooey Deschanel, Martin Freeman and Sam Rockwell.



Babel Fish, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Pez Babel,


2. The Good Place

This Netflix series, created by veteran Michael Schur, tells the story of Eleanor Shellstrop, an American woman who, after a somewhat ridiculous death, moves to one of the neighbourhoods of paradise. In Eden, everything is better than in the worldly life. One of the advantages, for example, is that the neighbourhood automatically translates all conversations into the language of each listener, making communication much easier. A somewhat magical translating tactic, but ultimately a translating one 😉.


The good Place, Netflix, Kristen Bell, Ted Swanson


3. Men in Black

During the first part of this hilarious saga, Agent K. affirms the existence of a universal translator. The device is, however, too complex for human use. Will we be ready now?


Men in black, hombres de negro, will smith


4. Star Trek

When Captain Kirk meets an alien species, he is always able to communicate thanks to a pocket-sized universal translation device (in the picture). The conceptual similarity with mobile translation apps is uncanny. This type of machine translation can be very useful when it comes to understanding certain terms, although if we rely too much on it, we may have to face devastating diplomatic problems.

Star Trek


5. Doctor Who

One of the main features of this fantastic series is time travel, which is possible thanks to a space-time ship in the form of a British telephone booth called TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). This machine also has a translation circuit that allows its user to understand the rest of the species in the universe. Such a circuit is, perhaps, a cheap excuse to explain that all these species always speak English in the series, although it is an example of machine translation in fiction after all 😉.


Doctor Who, TRADIS


The inability to communicate between people who do not speak the same language is one of the main and most important problems of today’s society. That’s why, in fiction, we try to solve it magically or with fantastic elements. In real life, however, we need quality translators who do not distort the meaning of the message.


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