In Star Trek technobabble, it's ..well.. it's the excuse that the writers of the show use for how everybody can understand each other. In Star Trek: The Original Series it was a device that made all on ship and ship to ship communications between humans and klingons so convenient. It translated everything into english for the convenience of the audience. Why klingons' lips weren't moving funny like in those Godzilla movies, I don't know. I guess Universal Translators could translate lip movements too.

This is perhaps the least plausible of all the Star Trek technobabble crap, but hey, it's just a show. In Star Trek: The Next Generation and beyond, it's more like software that fits nicely inside the communicator badge all starfleet officers carry. However, generally they try just not to talk about it much because it's pretty damn iffy even for speculative fiction's standards. Douglas Adams came up with a much spiffier of an idea for his Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series of books. He just said everybody kept a Babel Fish in their ear and moved on.

In Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (SMAC), the Universal Translator is a Secret Project. It may be built at a cost of 400 minerals, on discovery of Homo Superior (E8). Upon building the Universal Translator your faction immediately gets two free tech advances, which is probably worth the cost in itself. It also allows you to link any number of alien artifacts to the Network Node at the base where it is built, whereas normally you can only ever link one alien artifact to each base's Network Node.

How useful is this? By the time you research Homo Superior, you're probably noticing how each new tech advance takes progressively more lab output; hence, an alien artifact (which awards an immediate free tech advance if you can get it safely to a base with a Network Node) becomes correspondingly more valuable as the game progresses. This alone should encourage you to aggressively explore before your rivals harvest the alien artifacts. Although your bases most suited to rapid Project completion are probably near the center of your explored map, you may want to build this one closer to your unexplored borders, or at least in a coastal base. (You should build transport-capable units specifically dedicated to sweeping for artifacts in ocean squares.)

Secret Project animation narrative:
   "And the Lord said, 'Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained for them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.'"
   -- The Conclave Bible,
   Datalinks

If translation is an imperfect art, a universal translator is universally imperfect with the meaning getting lost or twisted or spun. Competing universal translator manufacturers could spin differently, each claiming to be expressing the wishes of the founding fathers of the original idea. "Right to life" in one universal translator shows up as "anti-abortion" in another. And corporations could sponsor parts of a translator insisting that "photocopy" translate to "Xerox." Or not.

Satirists could create their own ironic translators. Minimalists could translate everything into nothing. Censors could Bowdlerize. And musicians could add that swing, without which it don't mean a thing.

Marcus fidgeted and adjusted his tie. He wasn’t ready for this at all. He was a scientist, not a speaker. He felt uncomfortable in the suit—why couldn’t he just wear a labcoat? The entire audience was full of scientists anyway. Oh right, the cameras. Crap. He heard his cue, took a deep breath, and walked up onto the stage. He swallowed as he approached the podium, adjusted the microphone, and looked around the auditorium, once again in awe of the diversity he saw there. Smiling, he began his speech: 

Ladies and gentlemen: I congratulate you.” He paused as the audience erupted in cheers and applause. “This project has been a truly international effort—our team has representatives from nearly every nation, ethnic background, and walk of life. But it’s only appropriate, since the technology we’ve created will change the entire world. Everyone is going to benefit from this amazing invention.” Applause. He couldn’t help but notice the camera lens, a painful reminder that this speech was even now being translated into more languages than he could imagine, watched intently and understood perfectly by millions worldwide. Better not screw up. “Friends, we have created a technology that’s impact is even greater than that of the telegraph, cellular phone, or world wide web. Everyone on earth can benefit from the Universal Translator. And we’re going to do it as a family. No one gets left out, and we all have the opportunity to explore and learn things that our ancestors could only imagine. This is only the beginning, because with this new technology, all of us can work together to understand the universe. We’ve already seen what the mere hundreds of us here in this room can do. Now imagine what discoveries await with the entire human race participating.” Thunderous applause. He waited for the cheers to die down. This was the exciting part. This was the reason that he volunteered to speak.

 “Everyone told us that this was impossible, that there was no way that we could ever hope to succeed. Well, now, my friends, the world is watching; we’ve proven them wrong. This victory for science belongs to all of us. Thank you for all of your monumental efforts.” More cheers. Everyone leaned forward expectantly. This was the moment they’d all been waiting for. Sweat broke out on his forehead. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the accumulation of all of our efforts: the Universal Translator!” Amidst tumultuous applause, covered in sweat, knees shaking in anticipation, he pulled the shining metallic handle. And then, as the entire planet held its breath, the universe danced around it.

 
Translate: to bear, carry, or move from one place, position, etc., to another; transfer.

 
Mechanics. to cause (a body) to move without rotation or angular displacement; subject to translation.

 

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