The Latest Translation Apps and Gadgets for Travelers
The world is getting smaller, and the need to communicate in foreign languages is becoming greater.
14:20 08 November 2019
Luckily, translation tech is advancing faster than you can say tout de suite. AI-powered neural network translation, souped-up OCR-driven Camera translators, and 2-way simultaneous voice interpreters are becoming accessible to the consumers, either as in-smartphone apps or as standalone gadgets. We check out the cream of the crop in both categories for 2020.
The Neural Network Revolution for Machine Translation
In 2014, the Artificial Intelligence technique known as neural networks revolutionized the way natural language is translating. Instead of tackling language word-by-word, sentence by sentence, smart algorithms considered the full context of any given passage, comparing it to a knowledge base with millions of comparable passages. The result was a quantum leap in accuracy, improvements that have already shown up in consumer products like Google Translate and Microsoft Translator.
In recent years, neural machine translation has begun to approach the quality of human linguists for highly structured documents like weather reports, legal documents, and government reports, and technical documentation. “While machines still have a way to go before they can match the talent of a flesh and blood translator, that day is fast approaching,” says Ofer Tirosh, CEO of Tomedes, a leading provider of translation services and other languages services. “Expect human linguists now enjoy a significant lead over software only when translating complex or creative texts. For simple or highly structured texts, machines are competitive with human translators.”
Translation on the Go: Using Your Smartphone as a Traveling Interpreter
The growing advantages of relying on software for translation is even more pronounced for travelers, especially businesspeople on the go. When traveling, one does not have the luxury or the time to hire a localization company, translation agency or to contract professional translation services from a freelance translator. The cost of professional interpreters can be prohibitively expensive for many.
Happily, the advance of machine translation has been especially rapid in terms of services to the traveler. Text-to-text translation software is ubiquitous, but more exotic services, often rendered as a translation app, can now be installed on a smartphone either for free or a nominal cost. Search the iOs App Store or Google Play Store and you will find plenty of options for wrap around translation services.
What is the best translation app? It’s not an easy question to answer because there are so many contenders. To make sense of your options, let’s break the question into several categories by functionality.
Text-to-Text Translation: Which App Translates Best?
All the big tech players recognize the value of quality translation and invest huge resources in advancing the state of the art as well as their own entries in the translation race. Google, Microsoft and Facebook lead the way in translation software, each continually adding features and fine-tuning their translation algorithms. Much like the continuing competition of machine to beat grandmasters in chess, AI-driven translating algorithms go head-to-head in industry conferences for kudos as the cream of the crop.
Although there is no World Series or World Cup of translation to officially crown an international winner for best translation engine, Google seems to have a leg up in many competitive events. McGill Professor Patricia Hewlin chooses Google Translate as the most indispensable tool she uses, telling Lifehacker. “I often travel to China for research and teaching, and I can’t live without the Google translation app. The voice and word scanning features are indispensable. I love voice recording for writing and taking notes. When I am on the go or even resting at night, it is perfect because what I say translates into text that I can paste into my manuscripts.” Google also lets you download language packs so you can translate offline.
2-way Voice Translators Save the Day
The ability to talk to your phone or laptop or even a smart agent like Alexa, Siri or Echo, and have your voice rendered as text, either in the original language or in translation, can appear as almost miraculous even to the technologically jaded consumer. But the magical power of simultaneous interpretation can be a lifesaver when traveling abroad.
Sandra B. reported a harrowing instance where an English-to-Spanish translation app kept her out of the clink. “I was traveling in a remote village in Ecuador and was involved in a misunderstanding on the road in which the police became involved. Things got very heated and I thought the situation was spinning out of control. I can’t personally translate from English to Spanish, and no one else could either. There was not a professional interpreter in sight. Thankfully I had a voice translator app installed, and that enabled me to clarify my situation and the events to the authorities. Pure and simple, my translator app avoided the unpleasantness of a night in jail, or worse.”
Camera Apps Save You from Getting Lost or Hungry
A more prosaic use of translation tech is found in the latest batch of camera translators, which combine augmented reality and optical character recognition to simplify the translation of signs and menus when traveling abroad. Simply point your smartphone cam at the list of appetizers or that incomprehensible road sign and that foreign tongue will within seconds dissolve into more familiar words and phrases.
Both Google Translate and Microsoft Translator now bundle a camera translator with their basic smartphone app. Google leapfrogged ahead technologically with its acquisition of innovator WordLens several years back, and now supports translation of more than 100 languages, more than twice that of Microsoft. But some languages still pose a challenge to them, so if you are traveling in Far East consider WayGo, which specializes in camera translation of Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Unlike the free apps of Microsoft and Google, WayGo needs to be purchased at a nominal price.
Interpreter Gadgets, Anyone?
On the go business people put a premium on traveling light, so it may seem counterintuitive to consider adding an additional device to your pocket or briefcase. But the market tells a different tale. Browse Amazon and you’ll find a plethora of standalone translator devices, many of which offer 2-way simultaneous voice interpretation and camera translation. It seems that the importance of a dedicated translation device and its ergonomic advantages justify the purchase for between $75 and $300 depending on brand and features. Birgus, Travis, and TESIYI are some of the leading manufacturers in this gadget space.