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All known languages, including Welsh - Nit-pick

Dear Johnny Fanboy,

In the recent Doctor Who episode The Fires of Pompeii, Donna tries speaking to the locals in their own language, Latin, to see how the TARDIS translation system will cope with that. The people of Pompeii hear her words as Welsh.

In that case, how come the Doctor is able to speak to Chinese people in their own dialects in The Mind of Evil and The Talons of Weng-Chiang?

Vicky Robson


Johnny Fanboy replies:

First of all, it has to be said that, like many of the TARDIS’s systems, its translation technology does occasionally go wrong. See, for example, The Leisure Hive, in which it fails to translate Foamasi speech, and The Christmas Invasion, in which the Doctor’s ill health affects the TARDIS’s ability to translate Sycoraxic. Sometimes the TARDIS translates written as well as spoken languages (whenever we see English words on alien control panels, for instance), but sometimes it does not.

It may be that the TARDIS has a particular difficulty with Latin when it is spoken by non-Roman people. This could be because Latin words and forms are used regularly by various peoples across the world, in the form of phrases such as ad hoc, ad nauseam, sic, tempus fugit and terra firma, not to mention the binomial nomenclature used for the scientific classification of species. None of these words require translation. The TARDIS usually gets this aspect right, but Donna’s experiment may have confused it.

Similarly, words imported from other languages, including numerous French terms used in modern-day English, such as aide-mémoire, carte blanche, en masse, en route and raison d’être, do not require translation. Nor do proper nouns such as Blaidd Drwg, the name given to the power station in the 2005 episode Bad Wolf.

Generally, the TARDIS is very good at translating in an unobtrusive manner. It shows discretion by not translating certain things. For example, if the police sergeant and the Chinese suspect in The Talons of Weng-Chiang had been able to understand each other, that might actually have caused confusion. This could explain why the Doctor has to speak Chinese himself in this story. It could also be that the TARDIS is allowing the Doctor an opportunity to show off - he does seem to take pride in boasting, “I speak Mandarin, Cantonese and all the dialects.”

It’s worth remembering that the TARDIS is an intelligent, living machine that can telepathically connect with people’s minds and translate the intended meaning of their words in the appropriate context. Its telepathic connection is strongest of all with its pilot, the Doctor, and he and the TARDIS may occasionally agree that it is preferable not to translate certain things for reasons of discretion or privacy. This could explain the Doctor’s conversation in Hokkien with Fu Peng in The Mind of Evil, from which the Brigadier is excluded.

Alternatively, it may simply be that the TARDIS is too far away for it to translate for the Doctor in The Mind of Evil.

Well, I seem to have covered several other nit-picks en route. I hope you don’t think I went on ad nauseam - but then, you did give me carte blanche to do so and it is my raison d’être.