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Translation Apps and Traveling Abroad

French signs During my last week of being mostly disconnected at a conference in France, I ran into one big challenge: my knowledge of French is limited, and usually involves dictionary-heavy translation of text, not everyday conversation or quickly reading for comprehension and navigation. I relied heavily on phrases picked up from travel guides before my trip. Most street signs were immediately comprehensible: other documents, like menus, descriptions on products at the pharmacy, or signs on art, took much more work.

Throughout the trip, I found myself wishing for better technical solutions to the problem of translation. I started relying on a few apps to make the daily information processing easier.

  • Word Lens. The visual translation app Word Lens, available on Android and iOS, is beautiful. It works by taking a picture and attempting to translate the words directly at they appear, which can lead to some very strange interpretations but often is enough to get the gist. It works as well on signs as conference paper titles in printed programs–of course, it may have trouble with discipline-specific terms. It can even translate powerpoint signs if they’re close and clear enough and the font isn’t too small.
  • Google Translate. There are several rival apps for translation, but Google’s (web, iOS, Android) works well for already-digital texts or quickly typed in work and ultimately is the most powerful solution I’ve seen. It requires an active Internet connection, so it isn’t so great on the go, and it can be tedious to type in long phrases on a smartphone for translation. This works best when the specifics really matter.
  • A Pocket Phrasebook. Those of you traveling without tech might rely on some old-fashioned solutions: a phrasebook and a dictionary, whether downloaded or paper, may not be as fast as Google or a translation app, but it’s often organized with attention to terms a traveler needs to reference quickly. Languages has several options for download (each for a fee) in-app.

Mostly, technology reminds us of what we can’t yet do: the universe has yet to provide the Babel Fish that powered interactions in any language in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. An iPhone is a poor substitute. Microphone input might offer live processing, or it might just emit a series of beeps in the middle of a talk without any real results. Thus, during the French-language sessions at the conference, all bets were off: I managed with frantic scribbling of citations, attempts to translate words quickly, reliance on visuals and of course the often-futile hope of in-room WiFi.

What are your strategies for traveling to countries where you haven’t learned the language? Share your tips and tools in the comments!

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Flickr User Brian Smithson]

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