Hands-on: Google Translate Is Now a Way Better Travel Companion

Jan 14, 2015

A new Google Translate update released for Android and iOS Wednesday should let you have more seamless conversations with people speaking other languages, Google says, as well as translate road signs on the fly using your phone's camera.

The new functionality seems almost like it’s beamed in from the future, but does it actually work? We took the new features for a spin to find out.

Conversation Mode

Google Translate on Android was already pretty sophisticated, allowing users to conduct conversations across languages by alternating between two language detection modes. But the new update makes real-time conversations even more seamless. When the app is in listening mode and set to translate between a pair of languages, you can simply place your phone between two people and speak normally. The app can naturally detect which of the two languages you’re speaking on the fly. After you say a sentence, the app will present a written translation and speak the words in the foreign language as well.

In our tests using a high-end Moto X smartphone, the app was able to translate several sentences flawlessly when I spoke with a colleague fluent in French about Paris. Some sentences came back in English somewhat garbled (“what you eat and when you were there” instead of “what did you eat when you were there”), but for the most part it was pretty easy to maintain a dialogue using context clues.

See Google Doodles Through the Years

google doodle la tomatina
Aug. 26, 2015 For the 70th anniversary of La Tomatina.Google
google doodle la tomatina
Google doodle sally ride
Mar. 20, 2015 To celebrate the start of spring and the vernal equinox, Google created a stop-motion animation of flowers in bloom.
Nov. 12, 2014 For the landing of the Philae lander, the first spacecraft on a moving comet, Google created a gyrating lander with passing stars.
Sept. 9, 2014 For Tolstoy's 186th birthday the Google Doodle team created an appropriately long doodle, with a click-through doodle. http://time.com/3308635/google-doodle-tolstoy/
May 4 2014 For the Audrey Hepburn doodle http://time.com/87152/google-doodle-audrey-hepburn/ the doodle team adapted an image from a 1956 black and white photograph taken by Yousuf Karsh.
June 9, 2011 The doodlers came up with the idea of a playable logo, then pegged it to guitar innovator Les Paul's 96th birthday. Turning on composer mode allows you to create songs that you can share online.
March 24, 2011 The Harry Houdini doodle was created in the style of the old posters advertising the death-defying magician.
Nov. 25, 2010 Chef Ina Garten prepared this Thanksgiving feast, which Google photographed. If you clicked on a dish, her recipe appeared.
May 7, 2010 Google asked the San Francisco Ballet to pose and twirl to re-create Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
Oct. 7, 2009 Scan the doodle that marks the first patent for the bar code and you'll decode Google embedded within.
March 2, 2009 The doodlers arranged classic Dr. Seuss characters, like the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch, to form the logo's letters.
Jan. 28, 2009 There was no other way to honor abstract artist Jackson Pollack than with a chaotic drip painting.
Jan. 19, 2009 Guest artist Shepard Fairey (famed for his Obama HOPE poster) did a sketch for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Jan. 28, 2008 Early on, Google used Lego blocks as casing for hard disks. Later it feted Lego's 50th anniversary.
April 22, 2007 A melting iceberg for Earth Day is one of many eco-minded doodles the team has created.
Jan. 4, 2006 Enter the world of out-there doodles — Google in braille. Only problem: you can't feel it.
March 30, 2005 The Van Gogh doodle appeared in an era when doodles began to get more ambitious, and it's one of the doodlers' best interpretations of a specific painter.
Aug. 13, 2003 Early doodles of famous folk tended to be simple, like this silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock.
March 14, 2003 The early doodles were often simple but playful, like this mustachioed drawing of Albert Einstein to celebrate his birthday.
Nov. 14, 2001 Google's first doodler, Dennis Hwang, gave the logo an Impressionist look for Claude Monet's birthday.
Aug. 30, 1998 When employees left for the Burning Man festival, the Google logo became a cryptic BE BACK LATER sign. "There was no master plan for doodles at that point," says doodler-in-chief Ryan Germick.
Aug. 26, 2015 For the 70th anniversary of La Tomatina.
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A conversation with a Spanish speaker didn’t go as well — but the speaker in our test wasn’t fully fluent. The app seemed to get tripped up several times by her American accent. It had a difficult time differentiating between words that are similar in Spanish but wildly different in English (for instance, the app several times interpreted Sí, which means yes in Spanish, as Si, the Spanish word for if, or the letter “C” in English). For this conversation we had to hold the phone up to our mouths, using it more like a traditional microphone. It seems likely that the app is more attuned to native speakers of particular languages.

Translations in Spanish, French and English alike fell apart pretty quickly if we tried to move beyond simple sentences. The app isn’t good at interpreting a pause in speech as a period ending a sentence or a comma before a new clause. So while conversations are “real time,” they’re a bit halting as you wait for the translations, and they have to be simple so as not to confuse the app.

The translations also often skipped over a lot of proper nouns, including relatively simple names like Jonathan. And like all voice-recognition apps, it worked best in a quiet space, which may not always be available during real-world use.

Scanning Mode

The update also introduces a nifty new feature to translate text in the real world using a camera phone. Previously, users had to take a snapshot, wait for the app to scan all the text within the frame, and then see the translations. Now, the app can translate text on the fly. A “Stop” sign changes to a “Parada” sign before your eyes. The feature also works pretty well for itemized lists (like restaurant menus), but it gets finicky when you try to translate a whole block of text.


Overall, the new features would make Google Translate a great companion for a trip abroad. The app seems useful for handling simple requests, like asking for directions or ordering a meal. It can’t fully shatter a language barrier, but for two people who don’t speak each other’s language at all, it would certainly create a bridge toward understanding.

Our biggest request, however: a button you can press to explain what the app does in any language, so people won’t freak out when you try to shove a smartphone in their face.

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