A Message from Space

In his latest installment from The Orbital Library, Matthew Spencer tackles translation and alien communication

Since the beginning of the genre, science fiction writers have speculated on what it would be like to communicate with beings from another world. For the most part, these scenarios don’t depart much from how we humans communicate with each other. Both literal and literary devices are introduced to smooth over differences. Someone sets up a machine, usually called a universal translator, which seamlessly renders alien speech intelligible. A galactic lingua franca—some sort of space English—is another related convention.

These are efficiencies, meant to push along the plot or prevent awkward assumptions on the part of the reader, such as aliens speaking English or Hebrew or whatever language in which the story happens to be written. In the days when the genre consisted primarily of short fiction, such quick and dirty means were also necessary to shepherd the reader as quickly as possible into the adventure, without too much digression into the subject of linguistics.

Advances in machine translation, such as Skype’s new instantaneous voice-to-voice translation service, have borne out, at least in part, the speculations of the hack magazine writer. But universal translation hasn’t always seemed plausible. Writing in 1960, Kingsley Amis called it “blatant pseudoscience.” In his survey of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, he makes an apology for the reliance on UT as a plot device, believing that its use might stretch the credulity of the general reader to the breaking point. Scenarios of faster-than-light travel were much more feasible, Amis thought—and with good reason, writing as he did in a time when aerospace was the vanguard technology.

But alien communication has not only been the domain of pulp magazines and late-night syndicated television. There is a critical difference between the hocus pocus of, say, Star Trek, where some unseen computer automatically renders dialog into English, and more rigorous speculation about translation of alien languages. Some of the latter can be found in a subgenre of science fiction commonly referred to, easily enough, as “a message from space.”

The plots of these novels and stories are, as the name would suggest, more or less uniform. A signal of extraterrestrial origin is detected, usually by accident, and a team of scientists is assembled to decipher the contents. Often some conceit about the message’s importance, such as it being instructions for clean energy for use to save the world from global warming, are used to raise the stakes.

Over the years, the subgenre has served as an important forum where scientists can dramatize their research. Carl Sagan began publicly thinking about the problem in the 1960s. Working in collaboration with the Russian astrophysicist I. S. Shklovskii, Sagan proposed a method of communication based on physical constants in the universe: chemical elements, the speed of light, et cetera. Since the properties of the universe are not culturally determined, an alien civilization would have a much easier time deciphering a message.

Sagan further developed these theories, both in fiction and with scientific research. A gold plaque, designed in collaboration with the astronomer Frank Drake, was put on the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes, the first human objects to leave our solar system. Among other information, these plaques represent our location relative to other nearby stars, the configuration of our solar system, and, most controversially, representations of male and female humans. According to Drake, the project received negative commentary about their nudity.

Sagan went on to dramatize communication with aliens in his 1986 novel Contact and the 1997 movie of the same name. The protagonist Ellie Arroway, a scientist working on the real life SETI Project, receives a transmission sent from the constellation Lyra. It is a rebroadcast of Hitler’s opening speech for the 1936 Olympics, the first video transmission powerful enough to escape Earth’s ionosphere. Encoded in the transmission are mathematical patterns. Slowly, Arroway deciphers the message, which contains blueprints for a vehicle allowing for interstellar travel.

Far more pessimistic is His Master’s Voice, the 1968 novel by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. Written in the form of a fictional memoir, the novel recounts the efforts of William Hogarth, an eminent mathematician, who works with a team of U.S. scientists and scholars in an attempt to decipher an alien message sent in the form of a neutrino beam.

As in Contact, Lem’s aliens seemingly want the human receivers to build things. The scientists find that a section of the message contains a chemical recipe, one that yields a gelatinous substance named “Frog Eggs.” Among its properties is the ability to teleport energy emissions, including nuclear reactions, across vast distances.

As important as this discovery is, the scientists come no closer to deciphering the whole signal. Progress stalls amid bureaucratic infighting. In the end, the scientists still have as little idea as to the signal’s purpose as when they began.

His Master’s Voice raises the distinct possibility that if we were to receive a message from outer space, humanity might not have the resources (political, economic, or scientific) needed to decipher it. There would be too much distance, metaphorical or otherwise, between our species and theirs. Even the simplest message, Hogarth reflects, will contain any number of anthropocentric assumptions about the nature of experience.

The view of many notwithstanding, the conceptual convergence of all languages of Earth’s culture, however varied they may be, is striking. The telegram GRANDMOTHER DEAD FUNERAL WEDNESDAY can be translated into any language you like…The reason is that everyone has a mother, who has a mother; that everyone must die; that the ritualization of the disposing of a corpse is a cultural constant; as is, also, the principal of reckoning time. But beings that unisexual would not know the distinction between mother and father, and those dividing like amoebas would be unable to form the idea even of a unisexual parent. Beings that do not die (amoebas, dividing, do not die) would be unacquainted with the notion of death and funerals. They would therefore have to learn about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, history and customs before they could begin the translation of this telegram that is so clear to us. (His Master’s Voice)

At the end of 2014, Skype announced that instantaneous voice-to-voice translation was available to users with Windows 8.1 operating systems. Despite the limited release, this development in machine translation was hailed in the tech press as a bold step toward a world without linguistic barriers. For the moment, the service is limited to Spanish-English, two of the most widely spoken and translated languages. There is an enormous body of data on how they interact with each other. One has difficulty imagining things would run as smoothly between, say, Basque and Tibetan, or Comanche and Finnish, but those difficulties would pale in comparison to translating even the simplest message from outer space.

Translation, as Lem reminds us, runs smoothly only when we’re dealing with that which is most familiar to us. Every day we send out messages with the assumption that the recipient will be fundamentally like ourselves. That is an assumption science fiction is uniquely qualified to challenge.


Matthew Spencer is a writer, born and raised in western Colorado, who lives in Seattle, Washington. He worked as an English-language teaching assistant for the 2013-14 academic year in the town of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria. He blogs about art, music, history, and literature at Unpaginated.