Further Meditations on the Universal Translator

A reader going by the name of Blake Wondrasch left the following excellent comment about the video for the Universal Translator Secret Project. My thoughts in response made for a post-length discussion, so I felt I should break it out as such.

Most discussions are very insightful. But I *Strongly* recommend you go back and re-watch the last few seconds of the “Universal Translator” video a few times. There’s something critically-important that you’re missing. The alien language on the Monolith that is translated into English turns out to be the same passage from Genesis read int the quote with the Secret Project, describing the story of the Tower of Babel, if you look closely. You can see parts of it in the last few seconds on the video.

This has MAJOR implications- as it could be seen to serve as a fundamental confirmation of all of Sister Miriam (who reads the quote) believes- how else could an alien civilization so separated from Earth by both time and space, have the same Genesis story as part of their culture, if not for a single Omnipresent God who played a role in their early history as well?

Coincidences happen- for instance the pastor speaking at my church this morning is also named Miriam- but this is something entirely different. The Progenitors having the story of Genesis logically implies either that (a) the aliens visited Earth at some point in the past and adopted parts of its culture to the point they would stick in on one of their own Monoliths (which are actually alien TEMPLES in the SMAC lore, as game dev story-tidbits released with Alien Crossfire and the in-game interlude from discovering the Manifold Nexus both make clear), or (b) that there is indeed an all-resent God. However, the in-game fact that the Progenitors ceased to dwell on Chiron/Planet/The Sixth Manifold tens of thousands of years before humans ever visited it (and long before the story of the Tower of Babel first entered Jewish culture) makes (a) entirely impossible without time-travel (which the quote with the Temporal Mechanics tech advance clearly states is “impossible in the classic sense”), meaning that Miriam and all who believe in God were right all along, at least in the in-game universe!

In short, the Universal Translator provides factual proof of the existence of God in the game-universe. That’s kind of a big deal- and I’m surprised you missed this implication…

I had considered the idea that the Universal Translator video is best interpreted as providing in-universe evidence for the existence of God. But, in the end, I ultimately rejected it as unsupported by the evidence at hand. I will share my reasons with you here; you are certainly free to decide whether or not you accept my interpretation.

First, my analysis of the narrative and its effects on the player is intended to be from the perspective of someone who is experiencing the version of SMAC as it was originally released. And, generally, that player as he experiences it for the first time. For my purposes, SMAX and any associated fiction outside the game are outside the scope of my analysis. So, if Reynolds or someone else authorized by him expanded upon the purpose of these monoliths later, it’s not “canon” evidence for my purposes.

I explicitly chose this focus when I started this project for two reasons. The more high-minded one is that I was trying to figure out how a strategy game like SMAC could even be said to have a story. See this link for some overall thoughts along those lines: Mechanics of Narrative. The more selfish reason is that I personally like SMAC as originally released and patched a lot better than the expansion. If I was going to spend a huge amount of spare time obsessing over it, I wanted to do so on the version I liked best.

Second, we don’t know how the Universal Translator actually works. The details of translation are a fraught business in real life. Which makes sense if you think about what communication is fundamentally supposed to do. At heart, you translate an idea in your mind into some sort of physical effect. This physical effect is then decoded by someone else into meaning in their mind. If you did a good job at shaping the physical effect, the other mind gets an idea that’s close to the one you were trying to transmit.

So there’s a core question for a translator presented with any text. Should he try to translate the text as literally as possible in order to try to preserve maximum fidelity with the original author? Or should he use some art to attempt to cause the translation, when read by the expected audience, to create something closer to the same idea as the original readers of the text might have gotten?

The latter operation gets even harder when you’re trying to translate an archaeological text that was both produced by and aimed at someone with very different cultural expectations. One would expect alien archaeology to bring with it another level of extreme difficulties. If the Universal Translator is so sophisticated that it works on this conceptual level, it is quite possible that it would render the alien text to a human English speaker with the cultural background of the colonists on Planet as a Bible quote, even if the aliens had never heard of nor written about the Biblical God.

And, third, I think that my conclusion in the original post is crucial. At its core, SMAC is about humanity. What does it mean to be human? What in our legacy do we find valuable? What will we carry forward into the future as essential to the human experience, and what will we leave behind us as mere implementation details of the past? These are the themes that make the game sing.

This philosophical debate is made manifest by the conflict among the factions for supremacy on Planet. For that reason, it’s necessary that the game not be rigged in any given direction by the ultimate nature of the alien relics on Planet. Miriam’s claims shouldn’t be proven to be objectively true above and beyond Yang’s, Deirdre’s, or Zakharov’s by an accident of archaeology. Therefore, I maintain that a proper interpretation of SMAC must include a level philosophical playing field.


2 thoughts on “Further Meditations on the Universal Translator

  1. ramblog

    That’s an interesting thought: all of the SMAC leaders are too smart to go their way unless there are real reasons for them to believe what they believe. If the universe was weighted towards Miriam, then I’d assume the others would be working in a more religious vein as well.


  2. Robin

    It’s great you’re replying to thoughtful comments at lengths like this.

    I agree with our interpretation: it would take the video and the translation it depicts too literally to suppose that the story of the Tower of Babel is a universe-wide constant Yahweh instills upon all the civilizations he creates. Rather, it is a result of a truly “Universal” translator: translating not word by word (that would be more like transliterating), but translating the sense, by replicating the desired effect upon the reader. In the case of the story of the Tower of Babel that is the “morale” of the story (and the Tower of Babel also serves as a metaphor for overcoming this morale through the breakthrough of a Universal Translator).

    Think of Sagan’s Contact, and how the aliens choose to communicate with the main character: The fact that first contact takes place with Dr. Arroway’s father, on a beach, does not mean that her father “was the alien all along”. Having mastered communication, the aliens simply choose imagery, a character, words and concepts they already know the recipient to understand. Taking this into account, the “implied canon” here might even be that Miriam’s faction invented the Universal Translator, and that it speaks to her in metaphors and morale tales that they understand best because they study them to know them by heart: bible quotes.



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