One of the most distressing things about being American is the inability to understand or speak more than one language. Anyone who travels runs into language barriers at every turn. Menus, signs, maps, and food products are all written in the foreign language, and in certain countries, it can be hard to find an English speaker to translate for you. It’s stressful! Luckily, Google has been working to solve this problem. In fact, the latest version of Google Translate makes it easier than ever to be monolingual.
I tested out the latest version of Translate on an Android phone and was amazed with the results. Not only could Google translate photographed text with nearly perfect accuracy, but it also understood me when I spoke to it in three different foreign languages. That’s right — three. I tried Spanish, German, and Swedish on Google Translate, and it not only understood me (slight American accent and all), but translated what I said fairly accurately — most of the time.
Here’s how it works.
Snap a picture of a menu to know what you’re eating
When you download the latest version of Google Translate, you’ll see the standard option to type text into the field, but you’ll also see a new camera icon and an option to speak as well. You can tap on the photo icon to take pictures of signs, menus, and other texts that are written in a different language. You have to select the language first, though, so if you don’t know if you’re looking at Chinese or Korean characters, you’re out of luck. Regardless, as long as you know the language, you simply select it, take the photo, and Google will scan it for text in that language. Once it’s found the text, you highlight the part you want to translate and Google figures it out.
It’s like magic. I Googled signs in German and Spanish, and threw in a Swedish milk carton for good measure, and Google translated all three effortlessly. Sure, some of the grammar was off — It thought “Atencion, hombres trabajando arriba,” meant “Attention, men working up,” when it really means, “Attention, men working above” — but it sure was close. Google handled the Swedish milk carton really well, and even translated the fat content of the milk.
Google Translate can also handle handwritten text sometimes, if you write in block letters and really, really neatly. Lowercase letters didn’t seem to work, and sometimes Google didn’t register our handwriting as foreign text, so no translation was available.
Talk to Google — It will understand you
The text translation was pretty impressive, as was the voice translation, though it had trouble with longer texts. This is a common failing with translation apps in general, as longer texts follow more complex grammar. Even so, reading a short passage in German to Google resulted in a pretty close translation. Only a few words were wrong, and the expected issues with word order appeared (German word order is quite different from English).
Regardless, you could use the app to ask for directions quite easily. Google will even play back the translated text for the other person to hear. The next time you travel abroad to a country whose language you don’t speak, you can simply whip out your phone and snap a picture of the dessert menu, or press the mic button to record a native speaker’s directions to the Van Gogh Museum.
Google Translate may not have it down perfectly yet, but it’s pretty damn close.