In the episode "The Christmas Invasion" the leader of the Sycorax makes it clear that he is aware that he is speaking a language that is not spoken on Earth. Despite this he expects the humans to understand what he is saying and understands them when they speak in English.

This made me curious about which of the following is true:

  1. Universal translators are so common that a species that is only capable of basic space travel could be expected to have one.
  2. Universal translators are something unique to the Time Lords/TARDIS.
  3. Something between these two extremes. (e.g. Most species have limited language translation capabilities, but only the Time Lords have universal translators.)

In short, how common are universal translators (i.e. devices capable of translating between any two languages instantly) in the Doctor Who universe?

  • 2
    Perhaps they just expected us to put together 'angry looking alien wearing a skull shows up over London' and 'a good portion of the planet about to jump to their deaths' and come up with 'We should surrender'. Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 19:09
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    As seen in the Satan episode - TARDIS translator is not universal, and failure was admitted to something along the lines "it must be older then the universe" - which could indicate that it translates only the languages that Time Lords knew of at the time of construction
    – Deltharis
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 22:10
  • @Deltharis I've only recently started watching Doctor Who, so I haven't seen that episode yet. Is the language the TARDIS couldn't translate written? From the way it was described I assumed it could translate any language spoken by a living creature because it read their mind.
    – numaroth
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 22:17
  • @numaroth Yes, it was written - though Doctor was suprised that it did not translate which would imply that it usually did regardless of living creatures around. Mind that it's just a comment to secondary attribute of the question, I'm just quoting from memory.
    – Deltharis
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 22:36

1 Answer 1


It wasn't about having a translator. As mentioned on the Tardis Data Core wiki:

Sycoraxic was the language of the Sycorax and the only language that they used, believing that other languages were "primitive bile".

This is the exchange from the "Christmas Invasion" courtesy of IMDb.com:

Sycorax Leader: If sho pa pass your planet ma we kas champion..."

Alex: [translating] "If this is the best your planet has for a champion..."

Sycorax Leader: Then your world will be gutted...

Alex: "Then your would will be gutted..."

Sycorax Leader, Alex: ...and your people enslaved.

Alex: Hold on, that's English.

Harriet Jones: He's talking English!

Rose: You're talking English.

Sycorax Leader: I would never dirty my tongue with your primitive bile!

Rose: That's English. Can you hear English?

Harriet Jones: Yes.

Mickey Smith: Yeah, that's English.

Alex: Definitely English.

Sycorax Leader: [yelling] I speak only Sycoraxic!

Sort of a "the universe revolves around us" thing. Like how many of us humans expect everyone to speak English wherever we go.

  • Are you saying that the Sycorax expected humans to understand and speak Scyoraxic despite the two species having never met?
    – numaroth
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 19:46
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    Sure seems like it. It's like the running joke based on reality of those tourists who expect the natives of whatever country they're in to speak English, and when the natives indicate that they don't understand, instead of maybe finding someone can translate, they just repeat themselves very loudly and slowly.
    – Trish Ling
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 19:49
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    That might be the case except the leader was able to understand English when it was spoken directly to him (even before the TARDIS translation kicked in).
    – numaroth
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 19:51
  • Just because he can understand it, doesn't mean he is going to lower himself to speaking it. They considered human to be inferiors, and thus their language too.
    – Trish Ling
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 19:56
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    @numaroth - I don't know if you've watched the episode lately, but an important plot point was that the people at UNIT actually were able to roughly translate what the Sycorax leader was saying using their "translation software", before the Doctor revived and the TARDIS psychic translation started working again. UNIT may have been relying on their own past encounters with aliens (maybe the Sycorax language was related to the language of other species in their database) and perhaps even hijacked alien tech, but if they could do it, it seems likely other species could do it too.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 21:22

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