How Google Translate Is Now a Smarter Travel Companion

Google is working to make its Translate apps even more functional for users, especially those who travel in countries where they need some help understanding the languages spoken. Google announced that it updated the Google Translate app for Android and iOS to make it an even more powerful translation tool. The newly upgraded app extends the existing feature that enables users to snap a photo of text and get a translation in 36 languages to let users instantly translate text using their camera. Google’s blog post notes:

It’s way easier to navigate street signs in the Italian countryside or decide what to order off a Barcelona menu. While using the Translate app, just point your camera at a sign or text and you’ll see the translated text overlaid on your screen—even if you don’t have an Internet or data connection.

This instant translation feature currently works for English, to and from French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, and Google says that it’s working on expanding the feature to more languages. The feature is powered by the technology behind Word Lens, an app developed by Quest Visual and acquired by Google last May, which automatically translated words using a smartphone’s camera. Industry watchers at the time noted that Google would likely integrate the functionality into its Translate app, and the upgrade does just that.  You can place a sign or a menu in the camera’s field of view, and the translated text will be overlaid on the screen almost instantly.

The Google Translate app also updates the real-time conversation mode, which enables users to talk to others who speak only an unfamiliar language. The conversation works more seamlessly in the new version of the app. Users simply tap the microphone icon in the app, start speaking in a language they’ve selected, and tap the microphone again. Then, the app will recognize which language is being spoken, and for the rest of the conversation, the user won’t need to tap the microphone again.

What that means in practical terms is that you’ll be able to ask for directions, for example, with your phone’s microphone positioned (conspicuously) near your mouth. Then the app will use a robotic voice to ask the question in the language you specify. After that, the conversation will automatically be translated between the two languages. VentureBeat notes that while Google Translate has had a conversation mode on Android for a few years, the app’s ability to detect who’s talking and translate in real time represents an important step forward.

Conor Dougherty notes in The New York Times that while the upgrades bring Google Translate a step closer to the science fiction ideal of a seamless universal translator, the technology isn’t quite there yet. The conversations the app enables aren’t entirely natural or seamless, at least not yet, and Dougherty reports that tests have shown it to work best with short, jargon-free sentences. It also requires a pause between translations. But as Dougherty notes, the feature takes “one more brick out of the language barrier.”

As Amar Toor points out in The Verge, even the upgraded version of Google Translate isn’t likely to be of much help to users seeking fluency in the language spoken around them, but it has the potential to make everyday life in a foreign country much easier. Toor tested the app’s abilities in Paris, noting that the Word Lens translations are fast and “mostly accurate,” though the app misses or mistranslates some words. Toor uncovered glitches with the speech recognition feature as well, especially when translating French slang. He notes that the app will be most useful for those new to a language, such as tourists looking to find their way to a specific attraction.

While the translations provided by the Google Translate apps may not prove extremely reliable, they’re likely useful enough for travelers to use as one of the tools to help them navigate a foreign city. After all, Google’s French may not be perfect, but its assistance may be just what you need to make sure you’re headed in the right direction, or ordering the correct food, when you don’t know French at all.

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