Google Translate's No Babel Fish, but It's Cheaper Than a Personal Interpreter
Google Translate is now available as a native iPad app. The software will translate phrases between any combination of languages in its extensive library, and it even has speech-to-text and text-to-speech capabilities. Its speech recognition is far from perfect, but when used slowly and carefully, it will allow for communication between people with no common language.
Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide book series solved the problem of interplanetary language barriers with a Babel fish -- a little telepathic alien leech-like animal you stick in your ear that instantly translates any spoken language via pure brain waves.
In the real world, about the closest we can get to that are online tools like Google Translate, which have made all corners of the Internet accessible to nearly everyone, regardless of language. They're no substitute for actually learning a language and being able to speak it in conversation, but when an English speaker who knows some French and maybe a little Spanish encounters an article written in Korean and wants to know what it says, automated online tools are golden.
Google Translate has of course been available via a browser for years, and it's also been ported to its own iOS app. Now there's a Google Translate app made specifically for the iPad as well.
Internet Connection Required
Since this app requires Internet connectivity to do its job, it might be less than ideal for many international tourists. WiFi may not always be easy to find each time you need a language check, and unless you're very sure about your international roaming data plan, leaving it up to 3G could prove to be an expensive gamble.
But besides those particular circumstances, Google Translate can be very helpful. Its library contains dozens of languages, from Afrikaans to Hindi to Icelandic to Maltese to Yiddish. It even has an automated language detector if you're unsure what you're dealing with.
Its translation power goes both ways. You can find out how to relate a Dutch phrase to an Arabic speaker, or Welsh to Japanese, or vice versa. And a language swap button at the top will reverse the direction of the translation for quick back-and-forth.
Once you have a result, you can star it for future reference or expand it so that it fills your iPad screen with big block letters (which could make you look pretty funny to native speakers if your translation happens to be a bit off). And if you're dealing with one a few widely spoken languages, the app can also listen to spoken input and pronounce the result out loud.
This is where things get tricky. Text-based translating is one thing -- if the words are spelled correctly and in the right order, Google Translate's system will give you the same (presumably accurate) result each time. But computerized speech recognition is difficult. Even if you don't have a thick regional dialect, it's not uncommon to be repeatedly misunderstood by a machine.
Google Translate doesn't have speech capabilities for all languages it knows, but if you happen to be using languages it does cover, touch the microphone icon to make it start listening as you speak. Usually slow and loud (but not shouting) gets the best results. When it thinks it knows what you said, a text readout is provided in whatever you've selected as your starting language, so you can verify that it understood you correctly.
Typically the app could pick up my spoken English phrases the first or second time, but it seemed to have a harder time with non-English phrases and words. Monkey in French (singe) was understood as "orange." My wife's pronunciation of "I have a brother" in German (ich hab ein bruder), which I assume was annunciated perfectly, became "I have a browser."
Fair enough, maybe our American accents are too thick for even single words. So I hit YouTube. My first selection made Google Translate's head spin -- I had it listen to a few seconds of a fast-speaking Mexican weather reporter, and the best it could come up with was "tomorrow morning" (hey, it's better than the "bo bo bo" result I got on the first try).
Obviously it needed to go a little slower, so I found a few videos meant to teach English speakers foreign-language phrases. A simple, perfectly pronounced German "guten tag" was translated correctly, as was the phrase for "Where is the train station?" Others like "Where is the bathroom?" didn't fare so well.
I was curious to know whether Google Translate could maybe understand itself better than me or the YouTube clips I found. So I put the app on an iPhone, spoke an English phrase into the phone, translated it to various languages, then had the phone app speak the foreign phrase out loud while the iPad app listened.
"I am too full of chocolate" was correctly picked up, then translated to German: "Ich bin zu voll von Schokolade." Played back to Google Translate, it came out to "I am too lazy by chocolate." Close enough, perhaps?
"I am here to attend the president's dinner party" in Italian translated back to "I am here in China for the President cyst." Well maybe that would be fun too.
At least it aced its Russian exam. "Where are your nuclear vessels?" came back as "Where are your nuclear ships?"
You can't point Google Translate at a fast-talking speaker and expect an immediate transcript. Even slow speech often comes through muddled.
But if both parties speak clearly into the mic and check to see that they've been correctly understood before handing the iPad over for a reply, language barriers will be broken, communication will happen, and it'll be a lot easier and informative than a spontaneous attempt at charades.