One question I’ve been thinking about for a future SF space setting loosely analogous to The Expanse is the question of what to do about foreign languages. The idea being that there are a range of characters with backgrounds from different parts of Earth in which they would reasonably be fluent in different languages. The Expanse uses Belter creole as a new hybrid language, but I’d really rather not use this approach.

The simple approach as used by Star Trek and a few other settings is just to give the characters a universal translator. If this works in all situations with an extremely low failure rate, especially also including things like handwritten notes, it would imply rather advanced machine learning. The question I have with this approach is whether it implies that AI is too advanced to still have the strong need for human piloted spacecraft.

The other alternative that comes to mind is to not explain things and just have everyone speak English without much of an explanation, but this doesn’t seem as satisfying.

Hey Adam, great to hear from you again!

Language is a tricky thing in fiction, and you’re right that both The Expanse and the Star Trek approaches have issues. It’s very difficult to phonetically write out dialect or accent without sounding silly, or worse, playing into negative stereotypes. Unfortunately, The Expanse does both on a few occasions. Also, why are the Belters the only ones whose language has evolved? Earth still has thousands of languages last time I checked, but in the future, everyone speaks standard 21st-century English? According to the lore, a big percentage of Martian settlers were Indian, but somehow no Hindi made its way into their language?

Likewise, the perfect translations of Star Trek are beyond anything modern technology can offer. The Universal Translator can not only pick up a new language in minutes; it understands context, idioms, and even intent for a smooth translation every time. Unless the writers want Worf to say something in untranslated Klingon, and the UT is mysteriously absent. This level of technology is effectively magic, along the lines of replicators and transporters.

So, what are your options?

First, I wouldn’t discount a magic translator if it fits with your setting. Language barriers are really boring in most stories, and audiences will suspend a lot of disbelief not to worry about them. You don’t necessarily have to go full Star Trek either. If your characters aren’t encountering aliens each week, it’s fairly believable that they could all have earpieces which translate all known Earth languages.

Second, real time translation software already exists, and it will probably get better in the future. Of course, it will probably never be as good as the UT. The software will make mistakes, especially around things like memes or idioms. People will misunderstand each other, but it’s still a lot better than not sharing a language at all. That could be used to create some drama or comedy in your story without going full language barrier.

Third, you can deploy some handwavium, which is what I usually do. In a written story, it doesn’t take long to establish that while there are multiple languages in the world, your characters all happen to share a language you can use for communication. They might all communicate in Mandarin or Spanish, which your narration helpfully translates into English. Or maybe there’s a popular constructed language in the future that anyone in the space exploration business happens to speak. Unless you plan to make major drama out of language barriers, this solution will usually work fine.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!

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