if your 'hard sci-fi' has translation software that isn't a steaming pile of shit... that's magic, you're writing science-fantasy

there are no imaginable tech solutions that are gonna do jack shit about the things that are ACTUALLY hard about translation. if we had strong AI, the impact that would have on computer translation is... downloadable interpreters. interpreters that can be spun up wherever you need them.

they would be about as good (which is to say, about as bad! they would make errors!) as a human, POSSIBLY faster if the hardware was unimaginably improved, and they would only be able to translate between already-documented languages.

MAYBE we could program them to learn new languages quickly — you know, the way humans do in immersion environments — and begin the documentation of languages they encounter while in the field.

but interpreting unencountered languages on the spot? are you fucking kidding me? that's a Speak In Tongues spell, that problem is in principle intractable

I think people who Don't Know Much About Language and Translation might not realize how much room there is between 'imaginable next-steps-forward in machine translation' and 'perfect in-ear translation of novel languages'. there are so many ways your sci-fi could feature machine translation that was unimaginably better and more powerful than current imaginable futures,

and the translation software would STILL be a festering pit of garbage

People who get the printer drivers to work are writing science-fantasy.

@byttyrs Anyone who wants to write this kind of stuff should have to watch that scene in Arrival where Amy Adams explains all the things you need to know to render one sentence accurately. And take notes.

@nsmckinnon ... and then stop watching Arrival before the Tweest, because exposure to strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a cognitohazard that makes people do terrible takes about language

but yr right, the early part of that movie was a breath of fresh air re: First Contact and language

@byttyrs True, I still need to read the short story to see whether it replicates that superficiality.

I mean, it’d be hard for it not to, given the plot is the same, but I can always hold out hope.

@byttyrs Maybe I misremember but I actually like that in star trek (2009) they actually bring a freaking linguist who uses the computer as a tool, just like the pilot and gunner and whatever

@byttyrs my favorite "ppl struggling with alien translation without tech " what hoshi does in the show Star Trek Enterprise

@byttyrs one way to get around the "only works between already documented languages" problem is to have precursor tech that is ubiquitous throughout known space, all of which operates on compatible protocols, so you have a really good voice interface on your device, and the new guys with different foreheads have the same, and the devices handshake, exchange language protocols, and now you can have conversations mediated through the device

@robotcarsley I'm personally not a huge fan of precursor settings, but sure, a lingua franca helps

@byttyrs yeah, it's hand wavey, but specifically so you can tell the story you want without getting bogged down with constraints.

@robotcarsley oh I mean, I kinda prefer my science-fiction soft and story/character/aesthetic-driven! I am, on the other hand, very frustrated with the prestige of 'hard sci-fi', versus the shallowness of its speculation when it comes to the 'soft sciences'

@byttyrs I don't know that that hierarchy persisted past the 80s. I don't follow industry news that closely but I thought New Space Opera and solarpunk we're kind of the hot stuff right now? The only big name I'd really classify as "hard" right now is Stephen Baxter, and he did a massive series with Terry Pratchett, which seemed to me to be specifically to add a more humanist slant. Maybe Kim Stanley Robinson, but his tech is mostly there to support explorations of new sociology

@robotcarsley lol, I've read a lot of 70s/80s scifi because it's on my dad's bookshelves

I just want soft-science focused specfic, you don't have to share this desire

@byttyrs have you read any Iain Banks? His Culture novels are some of the best of all time in terms of imagining a true post-scarcity society. They're mostly about the friction that develops at the margins where they interact with other cultures. Ann Leckie's Ancillary series is very very good too, and if you want some light hearted stuff John Scalzi is excellent.

@byttyrs oh, and since linguistics is what got us here, China Miéville's Embassytown is the best fucking novel about it I've ever read.

@byttyrs if your hard sci fi first contact scenario doesnt involve several months of anthropological amd linguistic fieldwork establishing a basis for communication then im not interested*

*this is not a joke please my family is dying

@nunchler @byttyrs This is why Arrival is the only good movie.

(I've watched like barely any first contact movies, but I enjoyed that one as a baby linguist)

@Laura_I @byttyrs when it came out one of my linguistics professors organized a class trip to go see it, it was great

@byttyrs I wanna listen to you yell about language all day

"Word Beef with Mads"

@nunchler @Jewbacchus @nunchler I need to turn my computer off and give it a sec to stop screaming but we should talk shop

@nunchler yeah sure why not. Idk what the technical obstacles are gonna be, but I know that jackdaw did Nothing But The Toot over VOIP so I could ask him about it. should I make a channel to hash out episode concepts

@byttyrs me and erin tried to remote record a podcast once and the only way we could figure out how was to record two seperate tracks and edit them together, which i found so tedious i just gave up

@nunchler I am pretty confident it can be done, but even if I don't figure it out... I've done more tedious audio editing tasks before

@byttyrs Honestly "bad things happen because the computer translator fucked up" would make a good episode of a scifi tv series.

@ari @byttyrs it did, it's called "Darmok" and it's the best episode of TNG. Synopsis: first contact with aliens whose language is entirely reference to stories, makes communication practically impossible

@robotcarsley @ari I guess my issue with that is that it makes a small problem large, instead of rendering the larger problem as... large. the "Darmok and Jalad" thing, which I admittedly have only heard described, is like. I mean, it's a conception of cultural-dependent communication in which 'culture' means, like, TV Tropes but everything has a Trope Namer

like, prepositions are a great example of ways in which cultural assumptions can make languages super opaque. 'forward' and 'back' can refer to either spatial directions dependent on your facing, or to temporal directions. I think that's a pretty common one cross-linguistically but it's not obvious and it won't pass muster for radially-symmetric or non-cephalized intelligences

@byttyrs @ari and that isn't universal even on Earth, I know I've read about languages that use forward for the past, because you can see it

@robotcarsley @ari hell yeah, that's awesome, I've never heard of that but it immediately makes sense and flips the whole thing backways

@byttyrs @ari it definitely wasn't a widely spoken language, I want to say it was somewhere like New Guinea, where the inaccessible geography and fertility of the land make possible lots of completely isolated languages in small areas.

@byttyrs sci-fi, but instead of about the triumph of humans and the galactic unity, it's about the failure and isolation of humans as they fail to grasp galactic civilizations

@byttyrs have you read Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep"? It features machine translation in a semi-realistic way - that is, limited in spite of AI tech.

Translation and its limits is a core idea of the quasi-sequel "A Deepness in the Sky", too.

Vinge may have gotten his understanding of the limits of translation from Hofstadter, who wrote about it in his Scientific American column and maybe also Gödel Escher Bach.

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