How to use Google Translate

Thanks to apps like Google Translate, it’s easier than ever to communicate with people who don’t speak your native tongue. With support for more than 100 languages, this powerful app is indispensable for travel, and for any time you need to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language.

You’ll get the most out of this powerful app from the start if you know how to use all its features. Read on, and we’ll share the tips and tricks you’ll need to master Google Translate.

What Google Translate can do

As one of the best language translation apps around, the Google Translate app offers a lot of handy features and is available for Android and iOS. In case you’re wondering, here’s everything it can do and the number of languages currently supported for each feature:

  • Text translations: Type in text (103 languages).
  • Offline translations: Type in text offline (59 languages).
  • Instant camera translations: Camera translates in real time (88 languages).
  • Photos: Take a photo and upload for more accurate translation (50 languages).
  • Conversations: Real-time, two-way conversation (43 languages).
  • Handwriting: Draw text and characters on screen (95 languages).
  • Phrasebook: Save translated words and phrases.
  • Tap to Translate: Tap to copy text in any app and translation pops up (Android only).

How to translate text

The app is fairly straightforward to use, and it defaults to the translate screen. 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 can just tap on either 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. You can also reverse the selected languages by tapping the two arrows in the middle.

Once you have selected the languages you want, you can tap in the box below 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.

You’ll also see a small speaker icon on 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 text-to-speech option then you may need to install Google’s TTS app. On Android, you should also go into Settings > System > Language and input > Text-to-speech output and make sure that Google Text-to-speech Engine is selected. That route may vary slightly on different phones; for example, on a Samsung Galaxy, it’s Settings > General management > Language and input > Text-to-speech.

You’ll also notice three options at the bottom of the text box. They allow you to switch to the camera for real-time translations or to take photos to upload, open up conversation mode, or turn on voice to speak your required phrase or word instead of typing it. To translate handwritten text, just click the pen icon on the right-hand side of the screen to open the handwriting screen.

How to share translations

With every translation the app returns, you have a couple of icons beneath the translated text. You can choose to copy it to your clipboard and paste it elsewhere, or you can tap the three vertical dots for more options and tap Share to share it via Messages, Bluetooth, and other apps.

How to translate offline

While Google Translate used to require an internet connection, and it still works best when online, you can now use it to translate 59 languages even when you’re without an internet connection. However, you do need to download the relevant language packs first. To do this, tap the three horizontal lines at the top left, then Offline translation. You’ll see the available languages you have downloaded at the top and can scroll down and tap on any other languages you’d like to add.

If you’re trying to clear some storage space on your smartphone or just tidying up, then you can get rid of previously downloaded languages that you don’t need anymore by tapping the trash can icon next to them.

How to use the real-time camera or upload a photo

If you want to translate a sign, something on a menu, or any other written text, then tap the camera icon. Google Translate will find and translate any text in the first language into the second. Once the text you want to be translated is on screen, tap the Pause icon at the bottom right to freeze your screen.

If it doesn’t automatically start translating on screen, then tap the Scan icon at the bottom to turn instant translation on. Bear in mind that you’ll need an internet connection for this to work. You can often get better results by scanning and selecting specific text. Tap Scan then hit the gray shutter button to start scanning text, then use your finger to highlight the text you want to translate, or tap Select all.

You can also tap the Import icon at the bottom right to get Google Translate to scan a photo you already took — you’ll be prompted to choose from your gallery app.

How to translate handwriting

If you tap the pen icon, a panel will pop up where you can try handwriting whatever you want to be 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 have a stylus or a phone like the Galaxy Note, handwriting will be easier, but you can always have a go using your finger.

How to use conversation mode

If you are talking to someone and you don’t share a language then you should tap the Conversation icon to enter conversation mode. To explain what you’re doing to the other person, tap the hand icon at the top right and show them the screen. Once they understand you can close the pop-up message and get started.

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. You can also tap the Auto microphone option in the middle to have Google Translate listen and pick out the relevant language, but, be warned, this doesn’t always work very well.

How to use Tap to Translate

You need to turn Tap to Translate on before you can use it. Since the feature is available in any text-inclusive app, you may want to turn it off when not in use. To turn the feature on, open the Google Translate app and tap the three horizontal lines at the top left to open the menu. Then tap Settings > Tap to Translate and toggle Enable on.

With the Tap to Translate feature enabled, you can select and copy the text in any app that allows it and have Google translate that text. Simply highlight the relevant text by dragging your finger over to select it. Then, tap copy. Next, tap the Google Translate icon when it pops up on the screen. You should see the translation appear overlaid on the app near instantly. 

Tap to Translate can help you communicate effectively through the written word with the click of a button. It can also be a resource to learn a foreign language or even improve your native language proficiency.

How to build your own phrasebook

If you want to save a word or sentence, click the star located at the text box’s top right corner. This star will keep all your favorites in a phrasebook. To access your favorites list, click on the “hamburger” menu in the top left and open Phrasebook from the options list. The phrasebook even has a search feature that you can access by clicking the magnifying glass. This handy feature is great for language learners wanting to revisit words and phrases to memorize the ones they use the most.

How to use Google Translate as a dictionary

Google Translate can also function as a dictionary. No matter your primary language, you can use Google Translate to define any word you want. Simply select the same language for both boxes. In the translation box, Google will give its best shot at explaining the word in the first box. It doesn’t always work if English is the chosen language, for whatever reason. Choosing Detect language for your input and English as your output usually gets around this issue. Once you get it set up, all you have to do is type or say the word you want to define, and Google Translate does the rest.

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