In Depth

Google Translate review: how well does the new app work?

Updated Google app interprets quickly across many languages – but some things are still lost in translation

Google has updated its flagship translation app with new tools that promise to help even the most monolingual of travellers successfully negotiate their way around foreign parts.

The app has a range of new functions including a conversation mode, where two people can speak to one another in their own tongue with Google translating live, and a scanning mode, which translates text instantly on screen. So how well does it work?

Conversation mode

The old version of the Google Translate app allowed two people to speak to one another across languages by just touching a button to change the language detection mode.

The update goes one step further and can now listen for two languages simultaneously, meaning two people can speak into a device and have their words translated into the other person's language.

In a video review of the updated app, Mashable found that conversation mode can be a bit hit and miss, occasionally getting things very wrong indeed. Conversation mode also edits out expletives in a rather humorous way: "Holy s – asterisk, asterisk, asterisk".

More languages

The app's conversation mode used to only handle English to Spanish translation, but it can now manage French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian. Google says that more languages will be added in future as well.

Gizmodo says that Google's latest updates are an attempt to take on Skype, which recently released its own translation service. Adding as many languages as possible may be a part of that strategy, the site suggests.

Word Lens

Prior to the current release, users could take a photo of text in another language and have it translated into their language of choice. With Word Lens, the app goes a step further and will attempt to translate text live on screen as you aim your camera at a sign, menu or a page of text.

The system is impressive, but is hampered by its limited font recognition – it struggles with some serif fonts for example – and the inevitable wobble that occurs when you try to hold a camera steady in front of something makes it hard for the app to focus the camera's lens.

Handwriting

Google Translate now allows you to enter text by drawing it on the screen with your finger. It recognises printing and cursive, and is very powerful – accurately identifying even the most semi-legible scrawl.

Conclusions

Overall, the new features make Google Translate "a great companion for a trip abroad", says Time magazine.

The Verge's Amar Toor agrees, saying that most of the new features work well. "The app's speech recognition is fast and mostly accurate, and the (language) it spits back is understandable, for the most part."

Ariane Bogain, a senior lecturer in modern foreign languages at the University of Northumbria told the BBC that the app will help people with simple interactions, but nothing more complicated than that. "For basic things, it might be very useful. My mother, for example, does not speak any other languages, but loves travelling, so she could find her way around a town. But it is never going to pick up the nuances, the cultural references or the humour," Bogain says.

According to Google, more than 500 million people use Google Translate every month, making at least one billion translations each day. The new app is available for free on iOS and Android now.

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