iPhone Translator App Travels to Japan: My Field Test

What happens when an American in Japan turns to his iPhone app for translation help during conversations? CIO.com's Tom Kaneshige finds some success, some failures and some odd looks from hotel receptionists.

Thanks to some severely poor planning, my trip to Japan last week ended up being one more day than I had expected. And so my friend and I found ourselves stranded in Nagoya, a city in the center of Japan, without a hotel or our Japanese-speaking travel companions.

Neither of us can speak a lick of Japanese.

Finding a hotel is the least of our worries. We also have to navigate a complex subway system to get to the airport the next morning. So we work out a plan: First, lock down a cheap room at a business hotel near the train station, find someone to walk us through the particulars of getting on the right bus and then grab a bowl of delicious ramen noodles.

We find a nearby hotel, walk up to the reception desk, and my friend whips out his Droid and fires up Google Translate, which doesn't work. He launches iTranslator for Android without success. Both Droid apps require a data connection, which we were too cheap to buy.

The three receptionists struggle to communicate with us in English. That's when I decide to test the voice-to-voice translation app for the iPhone, Jibbigo, which doesn't require an Internet connection.

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The makers of the Jibbigo app, Mobile Technologies, have delivered arguably the smartest apps in the App Store: voice-to-voice translation apps for Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and an Iraqi dialect of Arabic, with more languages on the way. Just speak into the iPhone in either English or another language, and in a few seconds the app translates your words into voice and text. The apps aren't cheap, ranging around $30 each.

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Jibbigo app for Japanese has been a hot seller since it became available in January, according to Mobile Technologies. It becaome the top grossing app in Japan in only two weeks.

Braving the Hotel Reception Desk

Still at the reception desk, I speak into the iPhone, asking if there are rooms available tonight and at what rate. The app takes some 10 seconds to translate, leaving all of us uncomfortably staring at each other. Apparently, my English isn't very good, because the app translates my words into gobbledygook. Before the translation enters the final phase into a voice speaking Japanese, I quickly shake the iPhone to delete the translation. The hotel receptionists look at me oddly.

Finally, I get the right words into the app, and Jibbigo translates to perfection. Everyone (including myself) is amazed. The receptionists nod that they indeed have a room at a reasonable price. Then I ask them via the app about the cost of a taxi to the airport since we're worried we'll get lost taking the subway and miss our flight. The app is working well on these complex sentences, and I'm feeling pretty good about myself. The receptionists are impressed, even a bit giddy.

Yet when I point the iPhone toward one of the women to record her answers in Japanese, she starts, stops, and then blushes. As I find out later, that's one of three reactions (two of which are bad) to the app. The other receptionists laugh and refuse to speak into the app, too, although we get the idea that a taxi would be very expensive.

Nevertheless, mission accomplished: We have a room for the night.

We head to the train station — a maze of subways and trains, including one that goes well over 100 mph — to find out where we need to be the next day. My iPhone is charged up, the Jibbigo app ready to go. I walk up to a train manager to see if he speaks English. He doesn't.

No problem, I think, and so I ask a question via the Jibbigo app and point the iPhone toward him. He ignores the iPhone completely and the tone in his voice gets sharper. Hence, the second reaction to the app. We scurry away.

Amazingly, we run into a waiter we'd met previously, an English and Japanese speaker who promptly walks us through the train process, showing where we need to go and what we need to do. No app needed.

Needed: A Sign Translator

With our problems solved, we decide to grab some ramen. A nearby shop looks perfect. There's even a person outside calling for us to come in. When we get inside, though, she points us to a machine where we need to buy food tickets. There are many buttons with foreign writing and only a couple of pictures.

Too bad Jibbigo can't translate written words — at least not yet. Mobile Technologies founder Alex Waibel, a professor of computer science and language technologies at Carnegie Mellon University, says his team is working on such a feature for Jibbigo whereby you'd use the iPhone camera to take pictures of written words that would be translated.

"We had developed a road sign translator earlier, but it's not ready for distribution yet and we don't have a release date," Waibel says.

Back at the hotel, we meet the manager who speaks very limited English. He heard about the app and wants to have a discussion. I point the iPhone toward him and he gladly speaks into it in Japanese. The English translation doesn't make sense except for one word: sightseeing.

Yet this launches us into a discussion about what I've seen in Japan and what he's seen when he recently visited San Francisco. Whenever we get stuck on a word, we use the app to translate and continue our conversation.

As our discussion comes to a close, the manager looks at the iPhone and says, "Sugoi!"

Translation: Great!

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com.

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