Translation Tools For Travellers

Kate Russell’s Traveller’s Web – Not lost in translation

Science fiction writers like Douglas Adams (author of Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy) have always bestowed the future with some kind of universal translation device – it’s kind of hard to keep the plot rolling along if none of your intergalactic protagonists can understand each other – but you don’t have to stick a fish in your ear if you want to be understood on your own travels (in fact I would advise against doing so as it will just make you look odd and smell really bad). Instead, whip out your smartphone and let it do the talking for you.


Google Translate is a free online tool with apps available for Android, Blackberry, iPhone and Windows Phone. It uses voice recognition and text-to-voice to ‘listen, translate and speak’ over 50 languages on the go. I actually used this app once to help translate between the nurses and an Italian tourist with a broken arm in a hospital emergency room. Speech-to-speech translation makes it easier to have a natural conversation and you don’t even need to struggle with pronunciation as the app will play a phrase back so that the person you are conversing with can hear it, straight from the smartphone’s, err, mouth. If you’re on Android you can even use the camera to photograph something like a menu or street sign and have that translated instantly too.



Not to be outdone, Microsoft offer Bing Translator, a similar web service with a Windows Phone app that will also translate text viewed through the camera in real time. If you’re keeping an eye on your data consumption as well as the local menus, this app can even work with some languages offline.


iPhone users will have to fork out some cash to read menus with their camera phone. Word Lens from Quest Visual has downloadable language packs for three quid in each direction if you want to visually translate French, Italian, Spanish, German and Portuguese to and from English. The app is also available for Android, but why would you pay when the Google app works perfectly well free?

Having mastered the art of communication you’re going to make lots of new friends you might want to stay in touch with once you get home. The Multilife is a social-network with a built in translator and speech synthesiser to blast away those language barriers. It’s not as elegantly designed and busy as the likes of Facebook, but if you want a simple way to chat with all your multilingual buddies it is the perfect platform. If you or your friends have impaired vision this could also be useful to chat using text as you can have your comments spoken by the app in any language, even your native tongue.


As friendships continue to develop you’ll probably want to learn each other’s language to help the conversation flow. Duolingo is free and helps you learn Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, and English. Lessons involve translating certain words with repetitive exercises to help it sink in. But what makes this service unique and special is that behind the scenes you are actually involved in translating pages on the web for this broader, clever, crowd-sourcing project. Free apps for Android and iPhone are also available to download.


Even the best language learning apps require you to practise, practise, practise – and the best way to do this is by talking to the locals. But this doesn’t mean you have to wait until you get out there to start honing your language skills. Verbling is a social platform that pairs you up with a native speaker of whichever language you’re trying to master; and they are someone who wants to practise your language too. You spend 5-minutes speaking together in each language, with conversation prompts and a guideline to coach each other to your best abilities. A lot of language pairings are offered, including sign-language.


But it’s not just conversation smartphones can help you understand. Augmented reality has made it possible to point your camera at the world and learn a whole heap of fascinating facts drawn from the web. There are plenty of apps that will do this but I like Wikitude; free for Android, Blackberry, iPhone and Windows Phone. Just look at your surroundings through the app’s camera viewpoint and anything in the area with a Wikipedia entry will be flagged on the screen. As well as pointing out restaurants and night life hotspots, there’s information about landmarks and tourist attractions. Add to this more functional information about local services like police stations and cash machines. It’s also the first AR app to integrate with Blackberry Messenger 6, helping you locate nearby friends as they too will be wearing an AR tag. When you’ve decided where to go, use the route feature to switch to Google Maps for turn by turn directions.