Google’s Translate App Is Now Indispensable for International Travelers

Next time you see a tourist holding up a phone like this, she might be doing some translating, instead of taking a photo.

Photo by De Visu/Shutterstock

Google Translate may be the coolest app that you probably don’t have on your phone. Available for both iOS and Android, Translate doesn’t just shuffle words and phrases from one language to another—it can also literally rewrite the world around you. As TechCrunch reports, it also got a lot more useful Wednesday, adding 20 more languages to its repertoire. It now supports 27 tongues.

Instant translate is simple but surprisingly powerful, bringing augmented reality to the screens of consumer electronics. Hold up your phone’s camera to text in a foreign language, and the app will translate the words you put before it, erasing the old and inscribing the new in their place. As TechCrunch’s Drew Olanoff explains, Google built this feature around Word Lens, a program that it acquired when it purchased Quest Visual last year.

In its present form, instant translate works astonishingly well, but it does some things better than others. When I showed it a volume of Portuguese poetry, it was able to offer serviceable—if singularly unpoetic—takes on some lines. “The Martian found me on the street,” a Carlos Dumond de Andrade poem, aptly titled “Science Fiction,” promisingly begins, only to continue, “And had fear of my impossibility human.” Not bad, but I’ll stick with Richard Zenith’s more elegant rendering: “A Martian ran into me on the street / and recoiled at my human impossibility.” While it was impressive to watch the words take shape on my phone’s screen, this clearly isn’t the sort of task that the program was designed to accomplish—and it shouldn’t be faulted for its failure.

Google Translate performed much better in my neighborhood coffee shop, successfully translating signs into Spanish, Filipino, and a variety of other languages, but it struggled to make sense of the specials scribbled on the chalkboard. While the handwritten missives of my baristas left it flummoxed, it can still recognize a surprisingly wide range of letters and fonts. Like Google’s image recognition software—which has gotten the company into a bit of trouble in the recent past—Translate uses convolutional neural networks to determine what is and isn’t a letter and then to guess how those letters fit together into words.

Perhaps most impressively, all of this works even when a phone isn’t connected to the Internet or a cellular network. By limiting how much variation the network searches for, Google was able to fit Translate’s letter and word recognition capabilities into a surprisingly tiny package. When you first attempt to translate to or from a new language, you’ll be prompted to download a small data packet. Once you have that information stored on your device, it no longer needs to exchange information with Google’s data centers. This should make it a remarkable tool for those traveling abroad with limited Internet access.

Google Translate product manager Julie Cattiau told TechCrunch that the program isn’t going to replace traditional language learning any time soon. It’s also no poet—as its brute force renderings of the lines I showed it plainly demonstrate. It is, however, very, very cool.