Ok, we know that the TARDIS does the translation work for the Doctor and his companion, so they can understand what other aliens say. It does that basically by using telepathy. But how does it translate back - meaning, how can those aliens understand what the Doctor or his companion says (since apparently they are speaking English)? Does the TARDIS translate for them too?

  • Why wouldn't the translation be two-way?
    – Mr Lister
    Mar 4, 2014 at 12:12
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    The Doctor and his companion speak the language of the alien they are communicating with..
    – user13639
    Mar 4, 2014 at 13:19
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    This has been sort of Hand-waved thru most of Doctor Who; as I recall, it came up first in the Tom Baker years with 'The Masque of Mandragora'; they have carefully never really explained it (including having some contradictory behavior) possibly to leave it open for when they need it to function differently for plot reasons. They even poked fun at that with Donna speaking Latin in ancient Rome.
    – K-H-W
    Mar 4, 2014 at 13:39
  • Thanks for the "Masque of Mandragora" mention, I just looked up the transcript and the actual way they allude to the issue there is hilarious: GIULIANO: It's Latin. The question is solved by walking. SARAH: Latin? I don't even speak Italian. Hey, I never thought of that before. How is it I can understand you? DOCTOR: Don't you worry about it. I'll explain it later.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 4, 2014 at 17:49
  • Oh, I see that later in the script the Doctor does give a sort of explanation-- DOCTOR: Well, I've taken you to some strange places before and you've never asked how you understood the local language. It's a Time Lord's gift I allow you to share. But tonight when you asked me how you understood Italian, I realised your mind had been taken over.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 4, 2014 at 17:53

2 Answers 2


Basically, the TARDIS converts what The Doctor and his companions speak to the language of the aliens they are talking to. And similarly, it captures what the aliens say, and translates it to English so that The Doctor and companions may understand it. It doesn't cause the aliens to speak English. It causes The Doctor and companions to understand them. So as far as your question goes, it doesn't translate what the aliens say, it translates what The Doctor and companions say.
1.The christmas invasion
The humans suddenly start understanding the Sycorax in The christmas invasion. When they ask how the Sycorax are speaking English, the Sycorax leader angrily replies that he is speaking in his native language.
2.The rings of Akhaten
The Doctor is perfectly able to understand and speak to the Dor'een whom he later rents the flying machine from.

This gives us a good idea as to how the translation process works.

  • The Doctor is perfectly able to understand and speak to the Dor'een whom he later rents the flying machine from. Which Clara and the Audience don't understand, so he's intentionally speaking in the Alien language, but the TARDIS hasn't had enough time to translate or it's been too complex? How would you rate this instance? Sure, they're obviously not speaking English, yet they're able to still understand each other (including the Audience).
    – Mario
    Mar 4, 2014 at 14:10
  • That was Clara's first ride with the TARDIS. And important thing to note here is that The TARDIS doesn't like Clara. The TARDIS may not have been in a mood to translate stuff for Clara. As for the Audience not understanding, we didn't understand the Hath in "The Doctor's Daughter" either. But everybody else did.
    – Stark07
    Mar 4, 2014 at 14:30
  • Sure, but that immediately changes again considering the other visitors, guards, etc. It's still a bit inconsistent, but The Doctor's Daughter is a nice example where it didn't work as well.
    – Mario
    Mar 4, 2014 at 14:38
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    Most alien species will also either have their own translation system or not be bothered if they can't be understood. In the Dalek Invasion of Earth, for example, Daleks had been on Earth before the TARDIS arrived. Mar 4, 2014 at 14:49
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    An additional point to consider is whenever a companion tries to speak the native tongue, such as Donna in The Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor always tells them to stop that. Donna may know a couple common Latin words ("Ipso Facto", etc) but spouting off a few random words makes her sound a bit foolish to the locals.
    – Xantec
    Mar 4, 2014 at 15:44

There's some debate on whether the Doctor is actually speaking the different languages because he CAN speak them, or whether the TARDIS is doing the work for him, but often it is assumed that the TARDIS has the ability to access the minds of aliens as well as the Doctor and his companion. The aliens aren't aware of it, but they are having what the Doctor and his companion say translated for them into their own language, and what they say back is translated into the native language of the companion and the Doctor. It's a mutual exchange.

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