In chapter 5 of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, Ford Prefect shows Arthur the Guide:

Ford handed the book to Arthur.
"What is it?" asked Arthur.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That's its job."
Arthur turned it over nervously in his hands. "I like the cover," he said. "Don't Panic. It's the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody's said to me all day."
A screen, about three inches by four, lit up and characters began to flicker across the surface.
"You want to know about Vogons, so I enter that name so." His fingers tapped some more keys. "And there we are."
The words Vogon Constructor Fleets flared in green across the screen.
Ford pressed a large red button at the bottom of the screen and words began to undulate across it. At the same time, the book began to speak the entry as well in a still quiet measured voice. This is what the book said.
"Vogon Constructor Fleets. Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races ..."
Arthur blinked at it.
"What a strange book. How did we get a lift then?"

So the guide has "Don't Panic" in English on its cover, and it shows characters and speaks in a language Ford Prefect assumes Arthur understands as he turns it on before putting the Babelfish in Arthur's ear (that happens at the end of the chapter).

Therefore, is the guide in English?

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    Yes. Arthur can read it and he's (at that point in the book) unaugmented by a babelfish. It stands to reason that the book is currently set to English. It can, presumably, do other languages as well
    – Valorum
    Mar 10, 2018 at 19:43
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    @Valorum: One wonders how the Guide's editors managed that trick, seeing as Ford had been stranded on Earth the whole time. I doubt he translated the whole thing himself.
    – Kevin
    Mar 11, 2018 at 5:52
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    @Kevin - It's a 'smart' book. Presumably it just grabs some samples of the dominant local language and translates itself.
    – Valorum
    Mar 11, 2018 at 8:39
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    @Valorum: good point there, but what about the "Don't Panic" cover that Arthur can read before the guide is turned on?
    – user97590
    Mar 11, 2018 at 9:09
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2 Answers 2


At this point in the novel Arthur hasn't yet received a babelfish and has no obvious linguistic talents to speak Betelgeusian (or indeed any other alien language). It therefore stands to reason that both the pages of The Guide and its front cover must be written in English for him to read and understand it.

This, presumably is most easily accomplished by it translating itself, either because Ford has fed it samples of English or, more likely, the book is smart enough to take its own samples (perhaps from nearby TV or Sub-Etha signals) and to make assumptions about its likely readership.

Note that the guide is not a printed work but rather an e-book. Its ability to be read by pretty much anyone (and to tell you pretty much anything you need to know about anything) is both a key selling point and a major feature.

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That's its job."

  • Ford was on Earth for 15 years. He had to learn English.
    – user35971
    Apr 30, 2020 at 14:36
  • @user35971 - It would certainly make his tourism easier, but there are many people who don't speak English. Most of them, if memory serves.
    – Valorum
    Apr 30, 2020 at 14:37
  • Indeed. He might not have lived in the UK the whole time.
    – user35971
    Apr 30, 2020 at 14:48
  • 1
    @user35971 - He spent some time in America. They barely speak English.
    – Valorum
    Apr 30, 2020 at 15:06

In the first episode of the radio show, Ford Prefect instructs Arthur Dent how to look up entries:

ARTHUR DENT: I like the cover: “Don’t panic”. It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day!

FORD PREFECT: That’s why it sells so well. Here, press this button and the screen will give you the index. You’ve got several million entries so fast-wind through the index to ‘V’… There you are: Vogon Constructor Fleets. Enter that code on the tabulator and read what it says.

[With a medley of bleeps and bloops, the Guide speaks]

THE BOOK: ’Vogon Constructor Fleets’. Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it! [...]

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show, Season 1 Episode 1, "Fit the First"

This suggests that the entries are listed alphabetically in English (at least for Arthur). The book also starts to read in English.

Note that this scene happens before Arthur receives a Babelfish.


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