When writing fantastic stories about strange, faraway lands and remote planets, language is obviously going to be an issue. Learning a foreign language on Earth can be difficult enough, and I can only imagine it would be well nigh impossible to learn an alien one. As such, writers tend to cheat a bit in this respect. In some such stories, likely including most of the ones intended for children, they just have everybody in every land speak the same language as the protagonist with no explanation. I’ve already written about how this works in the Oz books. Others, particularly in the science fiction genre, use universal translators, Star Trek probably containing the most famous example of this.
In our world, “Today is a good die to die” is likely a mistranslation of a Sioux battle cry.
While there are electronic translators in existence, I doubt they’re anywhere near as advanced as the ones in fiction. The thing is, being able to program a known language into a translator would be difficult but likely possible, while a device that would be able to translate hitherto unknown languages is a different story altogether. The Trek translator can apparently do it by analyzing patterns in a new language, and then the speakers of that language are automatically understood by every equipped with the device. Cool idea, but hardly likely.
Getting back to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams found a way around this problem that was both convenient and funny. This is the Babel fish, a small creature that feeds on brainwave activity of those around it, then excretes a translation.
If you have one in your ear, you can automatically understand pretty much any form of communication. It does have some limits, as when it’s unable to translate the rudimentary language of the natives on prehistoric Earth. As it is highly unlikely that an animal as useful as the Babel fish could have evolved naturally, it has been used as proof for the non-existence of God. If this makes no sense to you, you can watch the video.
Oolon Colluphid appears to have been partly based on Erich von Däniken, author of Chariots of the Gods and other books about gods actually being aliens. Wikipedia mentions that Adams had written a radio sketch with a character named Eric von Contrick (really subtle humor there, huh?), who had written the Spaceships of the Gods trilogy. Colluphid’s books, however, seem to be more about popular philosophy and religion. According to the Hitchhiker Wiki, Richard Dawkins and atheist theologian Don Cupitt have also been suggested as sources for the fictional author. When Adams was working as script editor for Doctor Who, he worked in a reference to the Doctor reading one of Colluphid’s books.
Picture by Naomi Bardoff
Babelfish, by the way, was also the name of AltaVista’s translator, but this was nowhere near as effective as the fictional Babel fish. I think I might have used it a few times to get the gist of a page in a foreign language, but more often I’d just translate English into another language and back to see how ridiculous it had become.