When I was 16, I spent a summer studying Spanish in Spain. Armed with a pocket-sized Spanish-English electronic dictionary—high-tech at the time— I stumbled through the country.
Now language translation apps for smartphones can do much, much more than that old plastic device with the rubbery buttons and one-line display. Many of them let you speak or type a question in English and have that instantly translated into a foreign tongue, which the app can speak out loud or display on the phone’s screen. A response from a local can be translated right back into English for you. A single app may include the ability to translate dozens of languages—more than a backpack full of dictionaries.
I put these promising features to the test by heading into Korean, Chinese, and Japanese neighborhoods in San Francisco with three translation apps—two on the iPhone and one that works on the iPhone or Android phones.
The results were mixed. It’s quicker to use these apps than to look up words in a dictionary or phrasebook, and they can understand complete sentences. But apps with voice recognition don’t always capture spoken words in noisy situations, especially when those words aren’t in English. This made interacting with strangers even more awkward than usual.
I’m still excited about the future possibilities, but for now there’s a long way to go.
Availability: iPhone; the company says an Android version is coming in a few months
Price: currently 99 cents; generally $2.99
This is my favorite of the three. It’s the most visually appealing and easiest to use. After choosing your language and the one into which you want your words translated, you press a blue on-screen button, say or type what you need, and let it speak the translation aloud (the words are also shown as on-screen text). The people you’re talking to can then tap a green button and respond in their language, and SayHi will translate that back into your tongue.
The app supports about two dozen languages, including Arabic, Korean, Swedish, and Italian, plus a number of common dialects, and can speak most of these aloud. You can select conversation snippets to share on Facebook or elsewhere, choose a male or female voice for the app, and control how quickly it speaks.
SayHi usually understood what I was saying, as long as I enunciated and spoke at an even pace. But when non-English speakers tried to respond to questions, such as “how do I cook this?” or start their own line of conversation, it generally couldn’t understand their words.
I found that it was often best to say or type what I wanted in advance. Later on, you can always tap on that phrase on the screen and hit “Speak” to play back the translation, or just point it out to the person you’re asking for help. I suspect it might also work better if I asked simpler questions, and, when possible, convinced people to type their answers.
Another thing to keep in mind: While you can see the text of past translations without wireless service, you must have access to a wireless network to get new translations or play existing translations aloud. This could be expensive if you’re planning to use your phone in another country.
Availability: Android, iPhone, Web
The coolest part about Google Translate is the sheer number of languages it knows: It can translate the text and speech of more than 60 languages into spoken and typed words.
In typical Google style, the app is fairly simple to use but nothing fancy to look at. Near the top of the screen are two language buttons; you change them by tapping on them. Between the buttons is a two-way arrow that determines the input and output tongue. You can type words into an on-screen box, or speak them aloud. If you’re using the Android version, there’s also an augmented reality feature that lets you snap an image of printed text, highlight it, and receive a translation.
Unfortunately, like SayHi, Google Translate had a hard time understanding what was said by people I met. And while its translations of what I was saying in English were sometimes understood, a kind Japanese video store employee told me that he really had to think about the meaning of what popped up on the screen because it wasn’t quite clear.
The small two-way translation button also led to mishaps. For example, I’d think it was set for me to speak in English so it could translate to Japanese, but it was actually prepared to translate Japanese to English. It would be easier if the button were larger or more boldly labeled.
As with SayHi, you must be connected to the Internet to use Google Translate for anything but viewing past translations.
Price: free for limited version with Chinese and Japanese phrases; $3.99 per language.
Because Mantaphrase forces you to choose from an assortment of preset phrases that are sorted by topic, I thought it might be easier to use than the others. It’s also the only app I tested that works fully without wireless network access.
But I ran into some trouble. The app features a long list of phrases you can scroll through, as well as a search bar and four big topic listings (Commerce, Essential, Directions, and Transport) that are each subdivided into more topics (tap “Transport,” for example, and you’ll see “Air,” “Car & Taxi,” “Train,” and “Bus”) that each yield more specific situations. All these layers quickly got confusing, as I couldn’t always remember where I’d seen a phrase before (you can search within the app by keyword, fortunately).
You can tap a phrase to pull it up on the screen in both English and the language you’ve chosen (Chinese or Japanese are all that it has now, but the company says Spanish and French are coming soon). When appropriate, virtual “yes” and “no” buttons appear for the person you’re trying to communicate with to tap in response. That is clever, but doesn’t account for the fact that strangers may hesitate to touch your phone (they seemed pretty shy with mine). It’s also easy to see appropriate follow-up phrases by tapping the bottom of the screen, or display all the questions you’ve asked in a single conversation by swiping down from the top.
Using the Chinese setting, I got someone to point me in the direction of the nearest drugstore, learned the price of a scarf in a variety store, and was politely denied when I asked if I could pay for groceries with a credit card. But when I tried to get food recommendations at a bakery and at a restaurant, Mantaphrase seemed off its game: both times, the people I encountered suggested a restaurant down the street, thinking I was asking where—not what—to eat.