I’ve been playing around with the Google Translate app for my smartphone. It allows you to type or speak into the phone and translate what you said into 62 other languages. I doubt I’ll ever need to converse with someone in Azerbaijani, but should the need arise, I could get by.
At this point, the app works fantastic translating English into other languages. Where it falls short is translating that language back to English. I hope updates will remedy this.
This app really has promise for the reporter out covering a story who needs to communicate who they are and why they’re there with someone who doesn’t speak the same language. Crime reporters often run into this bind. Sure, The Tribune has several bilingual English/Spanish speakers, but if you don’t know you need a Spanish speaker until you’re trying to talk with the main witness, it doesn’t matter who’s on the staff list.
To use the app (which is available for iPhone, as well, though the functionality may differ) you simply tell it which language you’re going to speak and which language you’d like to translate to. Then you type or speak what you’re trying to translate.
Sweet. Not only can I order some Schokolade in German, I can even have my phone say it for me if I’m a little nervous about declaring myself a jelly donut. Click the speaker button next to a word and a robotic lady’s voice does the hard work.
Translating one word is all fine and well, but that’s going to take too long on deadline. See that “Enter Conversation Mode” button at the bottom? Click that and you get something like this:
Yes, we’ve switched from German to Spanish. When in conversation mode, the app switches between the two languages so that each speaker my respond to the other and have it properly translated. As I mentioned, the translating to English is rough to say the least. The English to Russian and Russian to English were actually good. The English to Spanish translation was spot on, but the Spanish to English didn’t even give me something to work with. I found the same with German and Czech. All bilingual speakers say the app’s accent is great and they had no problem understanding what was said. But when they spoke in the other language, the English translation wasn’t even close.
So at this point I wouldn’t try to do a hostage negotiation with Google Translate, but I’d be very comfortable trying to tell someone who I am, why I’m there and how they might be able to help me. Even if their translation to English doesn’t seem to work, you’re at least further along in the process than you would be without the app.
Another beta feature is the ability to write characters for some languages. This has got to be the most painfully slow way to have a conversation, but at least it’s an option. You draw the characters with your finger and it converts it to text. It looks like this:
I would suggest everyone with a smartphone download this app, and then play with it — especially with someone who speaks another language as well as English — before you actually need to use it. You never know when you’ll need to be fluent in Yiddish.