At PLG we provide fee-based translation services, but recent technology has made useful tools available for free. We don’t consider that unfair competition at all. Indeed, whenever accuracy, company image or liability are not on the line, free translation software has come to replace the phrasebook of yesteryear in breaking down language barriers (by the way, feel free to visit our website and use our free translation tool anytime: http://plg-online.com/free_translation.html).
The Google Translate app is a nifty pocket translator/interpreter that provides instant rendition of both the printed and the spoken word in 27 languages. Google Translate allows you to decode foreign speech through your phone’s mic or camera, or enter your own sentences to make yourself understood.
One visually entertaining feature of the app is its ability to render translation of street signs, posters, timetables, menus, press articles, etc., in approximately the same font as the original text. On the practical side, one impressively useful dimension of the system is that you don’t need to be online for the visual recognition system to work. That means at least two things: 1) no need to worry about international cellular frequencies and charges, 2) the ability to understand public information even in remote areas without a network.
The system, however, has limitations inherent to machine translation: it may not always be accurate (in an early in-house test on a captioned Ansel Adams poster depicting a “snow-covered” landscape, the app stubbornly and mysteriously insisted on inserting the word “snot” in its French translation). With non-Western languages, especially, Google Translate will often render foreign speech without correct syntax, i.e., words in the wrong order.
Finally, the app even has a function for blocking offensive words, which we, after scientifically-conducted experimentation, are not so sure is helpful. Indeed, the risk of running into an insulting street sign or menu is rather low. On the other hand, if it so happens that a stranger is hurling epithets at you, you might want to know, instead of being provided a softer interpretation of the message.
In the end, you can count on the Google Translate app to provide at least a sense of what the message is. And as a free app, it’s a tool no traveler should be without. Happy travels!