My Spanish, she isn’t so well. I took advantage of my status as a Brown alumnus and ran through some free Spanish lessons using Rosetta Stone, but all that really did was prepare me for a conversation about men, women and children cooking, walking and running. Also, I can name several colors.
It did not, however, prepare me to read a menu, ask about ingredients, discuss directions, discover how much things cost or address pretty much any other scenario that I might actually find myself in while traveling.
Fortunately, we live in the future. Before I left, I installed the Google Translate app to my iPhone, and it has become indispensable.
The least thing that it does is allow me to type in any word, phrase or sentence in English or Spanish and it will translate (no Internet connection required).
The two, much more interesting, features are “Word Lens” and speech mode.
Word Lens allows me to point my phone’s camera at anything (e.g., menu, sign) and the app will detect the text, translate it and replace the original text with the translation in real-time, on the screen. This is an amazing concept.
In practice, it has a couple limitations.
First, as you can see at right, it doesn’t always know where a word begins or ends, so it may pick pieces of words and translate them as if they were whole words themselves. This can lead to hilarious results. (“Puppy warm can cheese” is a hot dog with cheese, by the way. I have no idea what Testicles of the Sea are, and I don’t intend to find out.)
The other problem with Word Lens is that it gets in the way of actually learning a language. If I read the menu items, pulled out my pocket dictionary and looked up the translation, I’d have a shot at recognizing what it meant the next time around. With Word Lens, I can’t actually see the original when I’m reading the translation, so I remain ignorant. (Handy to have an app to blame for that!)
The other cool feature is speech mode, and this is as close to Star Trek as I ever expect to get: you talk into your phone in one language, it automatically detects what language you’re speaking in, transcribes what you say, translates it and then speaks it back out in the other language.
This came in incredibly handy this morning when the hot water heater in our apartment broke, and our host, who spoke no English, came to fix it and to instruct me in its ongoing maintenance. The translations were imperfect (judging from the odd sentences generated in English), but always managed to convey the full meaning of what was being said, which is a far sight better than grunting and gesturing got us.
Really, this feature is magic. I wish it wasn’t just in my phone. I wish I could have a little speaker and microphone on my lapel, and maybe an earpiece. Then, I could just walk up to someone and ask my question: moments later, they would hear my question in their native tongue. They would respond and, moments later, I would hear their response in English. Universal translator (or Babelfish, for the Douglas Adams fans)!