Until we discover Douglas Adam’s Babel fish, a small creature you can slip into your ear which translates any language, we’re stuck with less convenient methods. Thankfully, the days of flicking through a dictionary are long gone. With your smartphone and the Google Translate app, you can type in anything and have it translated to another language. You can also use your camera to photograph text on signs or in newspapers and have the app translate it. Best of all, you can speak aloud into the microphone for a translation or have someone else speak into it and the app will tell you what they are saying.
Before we delve into using the Google Translate app it’s worth mentioning that there are a few limitations. For starters the Android version is the only one that does everything. In case you’re wondering, everything includes:
- Language Translations
- Dictionary results
- Read foreign scripts
- Voice input
- Starring and history
- Conversation mode
The iPhone version ticks all the same boxes except for conversation mode, but the BlackBerry, Nokia or S60, and Windows Phone apps only cover a small subset of the features.
There are lots of supported languages. We counted over 60 in our Android app, but some of the features like text-to-speech and full dictionaries are only available for around 30 of those languages.
Finally, the big limitation and potential deal-breaker for some people is the fact that the Google Translate app only works when you are online. It is basically an interface that plugs into Google’s servers and so you need a mobile data or Wi-Fi connection to use it. The only caveat is the fact you can tap the drop down menu at the top of the main screen where it says Translate by default and change it to History or Favorites. That gives you access to all of the translations you’ve completed previously, so with some preparation, the app can still be useful with no internet access. Once you have a long history, you might prefer to use the Favorites. You can add translations to your Favorites by tapping the small star at the top right and it will turn yellow to confirm that the entry has been added.
How to translate
The app is fairly straightforward to use and it defaults to the translate screen. At the top there’s a drop down menu where you can switch between Translate, Conversation, History, and Favorites. Just below that you have your languages. On the left is the language you are translating from and on the right the language you are translating to. The app will attempt to identify your recently used languages automatically, but you just tap the language to get a big drop down list of possible choices. To make it faster the next time you use it, your recently used languages remain at the top of the list.
Once you have selected the languages you want, you can tap on the line at the bottom of the screen to bring the virtual keyboard up and type in the word or phrase that you would like to translate. The app will translate it as you type. It might suggest another phrase if it thinks you have mistyped and you can just tap that if it is what you were looking for.
With every translation, the app returns you have three icons beneath the translated text. You can choose to copy it to your clipboard and paste it elsewhere, share it via email or social media, or expand it to study it more closely. You can also tap the star at the top right to store it in your favorites.
You’ll also see a small speaker icon at the left hand side of every translation. Tap it and your device will speak the translation aloud. This can be incredibly useful when you are unsure of pronunciations. If you don’t have the speak aloud, text-to-speech option then you may need to install Google’s TTS app. On Android, you should also go into Settings > Language and input > Text-to-speech output and make sure that Google Text-to-speech Engine is selected.
Speech, handwriting, and images
You’ll also notice three icons at the bottom of the screen and they allow you to translate speech, handwriting, and text in the physical world around you via the camera.
If you tap the microphone, you’ll be prompted to utter the phrase you want to translate. You’ll see a circle expand around the red microphone icon to indicate that the microphone is picking up your speech and you should see a translation on screen a moment later.
If you tap the pencil icon, a panel pop up where you can try handwriting whatever you want translated. Be warned, though, this doesn’t work well for every language and much will depend on how neat and legible your script is.
If you want to translate a sign or something on a menu then you can tap the camera icon to take a photograph of the text. You’ll then be asked to highlight the exact text you want to translate with your finger and the app will go ahead and translate it for you.
If you are talking to someone and you don’t share a language then you should tap Translate at the top and switch into Conversation mode. At the bottom you’ll see a microphone symbol next to each language and you can take it in turns to speak and watch the app translate your speech and talk aloud to your companion in their own language. Be warned, though, the voice recognition doesn’t play well with every accent (as you can see from the screenshot it doesn’t like my Scottish brogue), but you do get the chance to acknowledge or tweak what the app thinks you said before it talks aloud.
That’s how to use the Google Translate app. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions for getting the best out of it then please post a comment.