Beatrice Benson, BB to her colleagues and friends, would have seemed at home in any exclusive beach resort anywhere in the world tanning her perfect body while her long, lustrous, light-brown hair absorbed and weaved the sun’s rays into auburn and blonde highlights as legions of men tripped over one another for the chance to fetch her a cold drink, a towel, sun block or anything else her heart desired in hopes of gaining the simple reward of the flash of her brilliant smile. If she were not preoccupied by more important things, BB would have been amused by these attentions of which she was largely unaware, in part because she was not the type to frequent beachside resorts or spend much time lounging on beach chairs, and in part because her preternatural beauty and credentials—Ph.Ds. in marine biology, electrical engineering and linguistics all earned by her 30th birthday—quickly burned off the wings of desire of mere mortal men who were attracted to her like insignificant moths hovering about the alluring blue flame of a Bunsen burner, leaving them in a similar position in trying to hold a conversation with her as the average chimpanzee trying to grasp the finer points of the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic.
Fortunately for both moths and men, not too many moths fly about the average lab, and not too many men hang around the out of the way craggy beaches and immense stretches of ocean that BB made her home while working largely on solitary projects, conducting research, writing papers, and otherwise contributing to the advancement of her fields with an I.Q. that Einstein would have envied and a work ethic that would have made John Calvin proud.
Her current project had taken her to Florida’s Gulf Coast, near Navarre Beach in Santa Rosa County, but far from the crowded condo-dotted beachfront. A generous grant from the National Science Foundation allowed her to take her floating laboratory, a modest converted cabin cruiser, wherever she went, carrying its precious cargo of high-end computer and electronics equipment with which she hoped to bridge the communications gap between dolphins and humans.
Her study of the available data had long before led her to the conclusion that dolphins have a highly evolved language. Computer analysis of sounds emitted in the audible spectrum alone showed repetitions that closely mirrored speech patterns that span across all human languages. Lesser intelligent mammals emit sounds that convey meaning to their own species, but these are typically limited to communicating extremely basic information essential to the survival of their species, such as calls warning about danger, the availability of food, or efforts to attract a mate. Even insects show the ability to communicate vital information to their own kind. But Dolphins and most whales are in a different category altogether, having brains that are larger than the great apes, including Homo sapiens, and showing the ability for complex communication.
It is one thing to recognize the fact that speech is taking place, but quite another to be able to decipher that speech, let alone translate it in a meaningful way so that it can be understood in its proper context across species. Even when dealing with human speech, it can be quite challenging to interpret from one language for another, even for native speakers of the languages being interpreted. But our shared humanity allows us to at least understand certain emotions, such as anger, fear, pain, sadness, and love without the need for a universal translator. Drop a human being with money in her pocket anywhere on the planet and he or she will have little trouble finding food to purchase, the shelter of a hotel room, and an endless number of consumer goods to buy at a local market. Moreover, none of us needs language at all to determine the intentions of people with whom we interact as there are an endless number of non-verbal clues that all of us emit that can allow others to, for the most part, accurately gauge our intentions and label us as either as probable friends or foes.
The best machine translation available today still yields results that can range from comical to tragic depending on their context and use. Anyone who has ever tried to decipher instructions accompanying low-cost, assemble-it-yourself furniture or other similar consumer goods imported from countries with languages different from our own can attest to that fact. Even when dealing with a common language, the very real possibility for misunderstanding exists due to the regional usage, slang, and pronunciation variances in different regions of even the same country, and especially when dealing with a common language adapted by different countries for their own use. An American from Mississippi and an Englishman from Liverpool both speak English, but will likely have some difficulty understanding one another, especially if they have only a rudimentary education and wish to converse about a somewhat complex topic. The same is true for a Haitian and a Parisian, a Puerto Rican, and a Spaniard (or, for that matter, a Spaniard from Galicia and one from Seville, Valencia, Madrid, or Barcelona, even if they are all speaking Castilian rather than their local regional languages). Indeed, the simple verb “coger” in Spanish which means—and has always meant—”to get, or to grab” to a Spaniard, means “to copulate” to an Argentine. Thus, “coge las llaves” (take the keys) means f**k the keys in the vernacular in Buenos Aires, and “cógeme de la mano” (take my hand) means something equally obscene.
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