Science fiction is full of miraculous technology. You've got instantaneous teleportation across great distances, time travel, faster-than-light starships, cryogenic suspension that lasts centuries, and so on. But one of the most fascinating science fiction tropes is the universal translator. (Or, in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Babel fish.)
On one level, the universal translator seems like no big deal. After all, Google can now translate dozens of different languages into English with reasonable accuracy, though it does struggle sometimes. And of course, most of the stories we love simply wouldn't work without a universal translator, because characters would have to spend months — or years — learning a new language, every time they traveled someplace new. That would make Star Trek and Doctor Who a lot less fun.
But at the same time, the notion of instantaneous, flawless translation feels very aspirational. In order to get better at writing Elza, a Brazilian travesti, in my young adult Unstoppable trilogy, I learned to speak and write Portuguese pretty fluently, and it was a huge struggle. So many irregular verbs! Not to mention the overcomplicated conjugations, and all the accents. (Turns out learning a language is harder as you get older; who knew?) Along the way, I learned firsthand that there are serious limits to any kind of automated translation we have now. Google sometimes fails to grapple with the idioms, culturally specific terms, slangy abbreviations, and random stuff that Brazilian Portuguese has. Not to mention false cognates — in our weekly Portuguese lessons over Zoom, my teacher Hailey has become accustomed to saying "No, that's a false cognate" at least once per session.
This experience left me feeling as though it's a lot easier to convince yourself that you understand everything that people are saying than it is to actually understand. Come to think of it, that's kind of true even if everyone is speaking English.