Many international travelers yearn for a gadget that can instantly translate their speech into other languages, and vice versa. Imagine speaking into the gadget in Paris to order a steak with a glass of spicy pinot noir. The waiter hears the French translation and responds, in his native tongue, into the same device, to ask how you'd like your steak prepared. You say, "medium well, please," and boom, no more lost in translation.
Google's latest update to its Translate app for Android and iOS is terrific, or presque formidable, as the French would say. It's about as close as you can get today to that fantasy translation gadget, but it's not quite there yet.
Here's what's new:
Much better visual translation. Google Translate incorporates Word Lens, a technology, acquired by Google, that's designed to translate signs and printed text from one language to another in almost real time. The instant translation feature is available in English, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian, and additional language support is on the way. The feature works without an Internet connection.
Based on my limited tests, it works reasonably well. One disappointment: I had hoped that Google Translate would do a good job translating foreign-language websites, but that isn't usually the case. (This could be because I used an image of an iMac screen and not an actual printed sign or document.)
Automatic conversation and speech translation. As in my Paris restaurant example, using Google Translate, you speak something in your native language into your smartphone's microphone. Google Translate converts it into the desired language and then translates the other person's response back to you. In my experience, as long as you're in a quiet environment (not, say, a noisy restaurant) and both parties speak slowly and distinctly, the feature provides at least a general idea of what the other person is saying.
Google Translate isn't the only translation app, of course. Others worth considering include Jibbigo for Android and iOS (free), which is sorely in need of an interface update but serviceable for basic offline translations; and iTranslate (freemium) for Android and iOS, which lets you share translated text via email, SMS, Facebook or Twitter. The app has plenty of other useful features, too, though you need to upgrade to the $4 version if you want speech translation.