Adventures In Translation On The Road

I made a recent two-week trip to Europe in four countries — the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. A large part of the trip was in the countryside where, generally, a smaller percentage of the residents speak English well. (Actually, the Netherlands is sort of an exception to this rule as a large number of people speak English everywhere and Dutch and English even have similar sounding words.)

In presentations, I’ve been highlighting the improvements over the last few years in real-time translation between different languages, especially the phone apps intended for this purpose. So, I thought this would be an ideal test to see how well they worked in the real world.

I chose the two leaders — Google and Microsoft — and took them on the road with me. I used these primarily to read menus, signs, information and the like in the foreign (non-English) language and translate into English. I also used it to translate my written English into the foreign language so that a non-English speaker could I understand what I was asking for. I tried a couple of times to use the speech recognition and speech synthesis capabilities of these apps, but that was limited for reasons I outline below.

Anyway, here are the results of my adventures in real time translation on the road.

Although not as smooth as the videos from the companies would have you believe, these apps generally worked pretty well. Frankly, whatever the limitations, I would have been in deep trouble and frequently lost without these apps.

You should check how well each works in a particular country. Google Translate did a better job in France and Microsoft Translator a better job in Germany.

Google bought the company that produced the original WordLens app that allowed you to hold your phone’s camera over non-English text and see it in English — a nice example of augmented reality (AR). That software is still embedded in the Google Translate app. It’s really cool, when you can hold your phone still over foreign text in good light. As a practical matter, this isn’t always the case.

That’s where Microsoft Translator has the edge because it doesn’t try to do the AR thing. It just uses the camera to take a photo and then provides an alternative photo in English. It was a nice way to create an English language menu. Apparently I hadn’t been the only ones to do this since waiters usually just shook their heads in recognition — another American making English versions of printed menus unnecessary. (Not really, of course, at least not yet.)

The speech and voice recognition capabilities in both apps require having a good internet connection, something that is not all that widespread when you’re interacting with people who don’t speak English. In hotels, museums and offices where there is available wi-fi, most people speak English well enough. It’s elsewhere that you need the translation capability and it seems there is a correlation between the availability of wi-fi and the percentage of people who speak English in a foreign country — or putting it the opposite way, you usually won’t have wi-fi when you need it to carry the translation duties.

So, it is best for both apps to download the complete file for whatever language you’re going to need. For me, that meant downloading fairly large files of Dutch, French and German. If you don’t download, then you’re going to need wi-fi even just for text.

As with any useful technology, you want it to get out of the way and become invisible. While neither is invisible magic yet, Google Translate helps with a nice little trip. If you type in English and then hold your phone sideways (horizontally), it shows the foreign language translation in big letters. This is very useful in explaining to baristas and clerks in mini-marts what you want. Microsoft has a similar capability, but requires an additional step to make it happen. The picture to the left is what it would look like in Spanish if you type “please give me a large latte to go”.

One nice feature of Microsoft Translator is its phrase book. This has many of the basic questions and requests that a tourist is likely to want to communicate.

All in all, I’m never going to travel in a non-English speaking country again without these apps. This area of computer science has advanced rapidly over the last few years and I only expect it to get better, especially for offline use.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Norman Jacknis’s story.