The main principle behind Google Translate is simple enough: to enable fast, easy translation from one language to another, directly on a smartphone or tablet. The execution, however, is potentially tricky, since automatic translation by computers is notoriously prone to pitfalls. Google has also insisted on going a couple of steps further beyond standard text-to-speech (TTS), integrating voice recognition and transcription technologies in the bargain.
Google is aiming not just for a pocket phrasebook here, but a veritable personal United Nations (UN) translator, with possible uses that include teaching yourself a foreign language, communicating in the local lingo while you're traveling, and finding out what the label on an imported product actually says, for instance.
While Google Translate is also available for Apple iOS, I tried out the Android OS edition. In reviewing the app, I found the end result to be highly impressive, although Google Translate does contain one key weakness that could turn into a deal killer under certain circumstances.
Although Google's intentions with this app are complex, Google Translate is very easy to use. For example, it's simple to select what language you'll be inputting in, or to ask Google to autodetect. You can also choose to translate your text messages, and to share a translated piece of text through email, Facebook, text messaging, or even Twitter.
Google boasts of translation between some 50 or so languages, ranging from English and Spanish to Hindi, Basque, and Haitian Creole. For certain languages, translation is in very preliminary stages, however. Also, Google's TTS system only supports some languages, although this is far from being a small, limited subset. Google offers TTS support for major languages like English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Arabic, Japanese, Greek, of course. The app will also read out loud in Swahili, Slovak, Macedonian, and Welsh, to name a few.
Yet beyond all its ease-of-use and far reaching multilingual support, Google Translate wouldn't be worth the time of day if its translations turned out to be faulty or garbled.
Passing the (informal) tests
For that reason I made a point of performing informal tests of its capabilities going both ways: first, to see whether translations from English to other languages seemed accurate; and second, to find out whether the app could adequately translate phrases from other languages nto English.
To spot-check Google's outgoing translations, I enlisted the help of a friend of mine. Being absurdly well cultured, she speaks four languages, including English. I asked her to look over a selection of phrases I'd passed through Google Translate. These ranged from simple greetings to a chunk of Shakespeare (a simplified, typed-from-memory selection out of the St. Crispin's Day speech, if you're really that curious). I had used Google Translate to translate each of these into either Spanish, Greek, or both.
Google Translate passed this spot-check with flying colors. According to my friend, both the Greek and Spanish translations came out fine. She described Google's Spanish translation as being possibly "a bit formal," but otherwise she leveled no complaints. (She did note, however, that the phrase "band of brothers" from the Shakespearean tract would be out of place in the Greek language, since this isn't a phrase used in Greek culture. So I think there's a lesson in here for travelers. Be careful with your idioms!)
To test translation back into English, I pulled up some Spanish phrases online from Web sites, typed them in blind, and then compared the results. Google Translate got everything pretty much exactly right, differing only on verb tenses which were in no way critical to the meaning of the phrase. In fact, the Google Translate versions sounded more fluid and natural than the translations in the online phrasebooks.
When I tried out other languages in this way, the only place I ran into real trouble was with rare or exotic languages like Basque. (To be fair, Google acknowledges that Basque is still an alpha-version translation). In translating from Basque to English, Google Translate took words that were supposed to mean "Get well" as "improvement." (Yet if you have to go that far to trip up Google Translate, it's safe to say that this app is going above and beyond the call of duty.)
Last but not least, I'll mention the gravy. Like Google's other semi-experimental apps, Google Translate is free. Moreover, it's totally ad-free. You can hardly ask for a better deal than that, right?
A gift horse looked squarely in the mouth
Now as much as this sounds like an unqualifiedly positive review, I'm sorry to say that this isn't the case. There is a key weakness to Google Translate, and it could act as a deal killer for some folks.
Specifically, the Google Translate for Android app is really only a front-end to Google's own servers. The voice recognition and the translation both depend on your phone or tablet talking directly to Google.
If you have no Internet access when you go to use the app -- say, because you're traveling and don't have an international data plan -- the app simply will not work. It won't function in any capacity, not even with reduced accuracy. It will simply croak.
Of course, this is a phenomenon we're growing increasingly used to with "the cloud." However, given the nature of when you're most likely to need a translation, it does take some shine off of Google Translate's potential. If you're traveling, you can't necessarily always get Internet access whenever you need it.
Despite its one big flaw, I still highly recommend that you look into Google Translate. In many ways, the app seems like something out of science fiction: a "universal translator" come to life. While Google Translate is an amazing technological achievement, playing around with it is simply a lot of fun. Even more than that, you just might find that this app will come in handy for you some day in an unexpected pinch.
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