Translation Apps: When to Use Them and When to Ditch Them

Have you ever seen a short piece of text in another language and wondered what it meant, or wanted to send a brief, basic message to someone in a language you don't speak fluently? While they won't capture the meaning of complex text, cultural nuances, or maintain 100% grammatical accuracy, translation apps can be perfect for things like understanding the basic idea of a conversation or text, or for short and casual conversations with people who don't understand each other's native language. The tricky part is figuring out when translation apps will work for you, and when you're better off ditching them.

What are some of your options?

There are an ever-growing number of translation apps available. These are two of the most popular options available.

  1. Google Translate

Available for both Android and iOS app markets, Google Translate is one of the more comprehensive free translation apps available. You can type in text for it to translate, use the voice-to-text option to both enter the original text and hear the translated result, write text with a stylus, or even upload a photo with text you'd like translated. Google Translate will then attempt to decipher the text and provide the output in around 70 different languages.

  1. iTranslate

iTranslate is also available for both the Android and iOS markets. Similar to Google Translate, iTranslate offers the options of text-to-speech, and normal input translation, but it also offers Romanization. This feature actually converts unfamiliar characters for easier understanding. iTranslate will also work in around 70 different languages and is one of the most popular translation apps to date.

When are they beneficial?

  • Short, basic translations. If you see a short piece of text and want to get a general idea of what the meaning is, translation apps are pretty handy. That's not to say they'll be without error, but for texts that don't include a lot of complexity, you should be able to at least understand the gist of what is being communicated.
  • If you are traveling and want to ask where the nearest bathroom or airport is, translation apps are typically equipped to handle these basic questions. In fact, most will even communicate the question out loud for you in the target language so that the person you're asking will understand what you want to say. If you've got a willing conversation partner, he or she may even enter the response in the app to have the answer read back aloud to you in your native tongue.
Google Translate
Google Translate
iTranslate app
iTranslate app

When should you ditch them?

  • Translation apps should never take the place of actual translators when you need something translated accurately and/or professionally. A quick Internet search for “funny translation errors” should let you know there are plenty of examples when hiring a professional translation company would have saved that business a lot of headache (and money!). If you want something translated well, don't settle for a translation app. Remember, most of the time, you're just getting the gist of that meaning, and not the most correct translation!
  • The longer the translation, the more numerous the errors. If you're trying to use a translation app to read a novel (or translate your own), for example, you're going to miss out on a lot more than you end up understanding. Most translation software won't understand cultural nuances, idiomatic expressions, or even be grammatically correct all of the time. This can cause a lot of problems with longer texts.

Have you used a translation app to translate a quick phrase or to understand the gist of a short text? Which one do you prefer, and why?